Educational Sociology Research Paper

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Educational sociology is a field of sociology that directs attention to the social forces that affect all aspects of education in a given society, or across many societies. As such, it complements the study of education from other scientific perspectives.

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The term ‘educational sociology’ is thought to have been first used by the philosopher John Dewey at the end of the nineteenth century, and university courses began to appear with that title in the United States already in the early twentieth century.

However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the precursors of modern sociology had recognized the importance of the social context of education. This was especially true of Emile Durkheim, and to a lesser extent Max Weber, Karl Marx, and others who in one way or another included education in their analyses of society. Thus, the sociological study of education can trace its origins to the writings of the early European founders of sociology itself. Since its early beginning, educational sociology has been the site of major theoretical and methodological developments. It has also produced a very large body of research knowledge about education in different societies and cultures. Noblit and Pink conclude in their discussion of the field that it ‘… is even more varied and vibrant than other subfields of the (sociology) discipline’ (Noblit and Pink 1995, p. 8).

The purpose of this research paper is to provide a brief description of the origins, the characteristics of, and the major issues current in educational sociology.

1. The Sociological Perspective In The Study Of Education

From its early beginnings, the sociological study of education was viewed with optimism. In one of the first widely used textbooks in the United States, The Sociology of Teaching, Waller commented ‘I am convinced that Educational Sociology is a fruitful and challenging idea, and I have tried to put the evidence for this belief into my book’ (Waller 1932, p. viii). A sociological approach to the study of education is one that focuses on social factors rather than psychological, biological, or physical factors in the study of education. The social factors of interest to educational sociologists include those that are related to social structures as well as social processes. Thus, for example, the study of schools as social organizations and bureaucracies is a well-established field in educational sociology. This organizational context also provides the framework for studies of processes at the individual level, such as the acquisition of attitudes, values, identity, and academic achievement.

Among the many other topics included in educational sociology are the family and its relationship to the socialization of the young, and its relationship to schooling. Teachers and students also receive attention, and interests range from the study of the recruitment and training of teachers to the study of the teaching profession and of teachers in schools.

Educational sociology also includes macrolevel studies of educational systems, for example, of educational expansion, of education in different ideological systems, and of the relationship between class structures and what takes place within educational systems. The study of education and social change includes the link between education and social and economic development, the relationship between technology and education, and the factors related to the formation of educational policy and planning.

2. Educational Sociology Or Sociology Of Education?

One of the most uncomfortable divisions within the sociological study of education has been the extent to which the field is seen as a ‘science,’ represented by the dispassionate investigation of educational phenomena, or as the development of normative policies and plans to build particular kinds of educational systems.

In the 1960s this basic division was characterized as a tension between the empirical and normative ‘modes’ in the study of education. Even today there are many who see the sociological study of education primarily as a change agent in education, either through the formulation of policy, or through the effects of research itself. In this respect, the discipline is seen as a normative agent which is concerned with specifying what education or schools ‘ought’ to be or to do in carrying out the educative function. This point of view dominated the early development of the field, at least in the United States. This approach was sometimes specifically labeled as ‘educational sociology.’

However, there were those who viewed the sociological study of education as a science. The label ‘sociology of education’ has often been used to designate this perspective, and this term has its roots in the sociological tradition that attempted to emulate the natural sciences and create a ‘science of society.’

The significance of the names educational sociology and sociology of education became an issue in the United States with the decision to change the name of the Journal of Educational Sociology, which was founded in 1927. When the journal came under the sponsorship of the American Sociological Association in 1963, it was decided that its name be changed to Sociology of Education.

Today sociologists and educational researchers tend to use the two terms interchangeably. The designation of the field to some extent depends on disciplinary location, such as in departments of sociology, where it is largely known as sociology of education or in departments of education where it is often called educational sociology. Furthermore, textbooks and courses sometimes are given other labels such as ‘social foundations of education,’ ‘social context of education,’ and ‘education and society.’

Language and culture also may affect the way that the field is labeled. For example, in German the sociological study of education is related to the three words Soziologie (sociology), Bildung (education), and Erziehung (‘to bring up’), and the field is frequently referred to as Bildungsoziologie or Erziehungsoziologie (Chisholm 1996).

In this research paper, the terms educational sociology and the sociology of education will be used interchangeably without implying that there are subtle meanings that differentiate between the two terms.

3. Some Classical Theoretical Contributions To Educational Sociology

Virtually all social thinkers, since the time of Plato and Aristotle, have considered the education of the young as part of their theories of society. From a social point of view, the process of education has always been linked with other social processes, either as a source of social stability or a source of social conflict. However, the discipline of sociology itself did not emerge until the early nineteenth century with the writings of August Comte (1798–1857). Many of these early sociologists included education in their studies of society.

The formal sociological study of education did not emerge until Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) began to teach, and write about, education and educational institutions to students at the Sorbonne where he was made Professor of Pedagogy and Sociology in 1913. Durkheim quite rightly can be called the father of educational sociology. As a teacher of teachers at the Sorbonne in Paris, Durkheim considered education to be ‘…an eminently social matter’ and therefore highly suitable for sociological analysis. In his introductory lecture upon taking up the Chair of Pedagogy in 1902, Durkheim began with the following words: ‘As a sociologist, it is above all as a sociologist that I shall speak to you of education (1956, p. 114). Later in the lecture he added: ‘… if there was ever a time and a country in which the sociological point of view was indicated, in a particularly urgent fashion, for pedagogues, it is certainly our country and our time’ (1956, p. 133).

Durkheim’s contribution to the sociological study of education lay primarily in his focus on the relationship between education and society. He believed that in every society there is a notion of the ‘ideal person’ and that every society had some form of education system to produce the ideal. This notion of the ideal person varies from society to society, and even in the same society over time. But, according to Durkheim, the education system adjusts to meet this need. Because of the importance of education for the survival of society, Durkheim regarded all education as moral education. For him, morality was the set of duties and obligations that influence the behaviors of individuals. He saw modern morality as resting on reason rather than religion, and he constructed a theory of educational practice that included what he considered the three basic elements of morality, namely discipline, attachment to social groups, and individual autonomy. Unlike his major works in sociology, Durkheim’s works in education are collections of his course lectures and include letters and book reviews.

The importance of the social aspects of education did not escape other early sociologists. For example, Max Weber (1864–1920) included education in his analysis of social stratification, and educational credentials formed an important part of his understanding of social class, social status, and the formation and maintenance of elites in society. Although Karl Marx (1818–83) never engaged in a systematic study of education, it was nevertheless an important social institution in his grand theory about class exploitation and class conflict. Unlike many other fields in sociology, the sociological study of education can trace its origins to the writings of the early European founders of the discipline itself.

4. Some Modern Theoretical Contributions To Educational Sociology

In the 1970s educational sociology began to move into the mainstream of sociological debate in both theory and research methodology. At that time the sociological study of education was criticized as being too conservative and constrained by the priorities and preoccupations of educators rather than those of sociologists. At the same time, sociologists were criticized as being too preoccupied with analyses of classroom interaction on the one hand and the relationship between education and status attainment on the other.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the microlevel study of educational processes was developing in the United Kingdom. During this period Bernstein (1971) conducted research on language codes and learning, and pointed to the hitherto ignored symbols and meanings in the classroom situation as a possible locus of inequality in educational processes. Bernstein’s research gradually led him to focus on the ways knowledge is valued, classified, and controlled in various kinds of pedagogic processes.

In the minds of some, this ‘new’ sociology of education, which included anti-positivist sociological movements such as symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, Marxist sociology, and the sociology of knowledge, constituted a paradigm shift in the sociology of education comparable to a scientific revolution in the Kuhnian sense. Perhaps the most important aspect of the ‘new sociology of education’ is that it directed attention to the study of classroom interaction, classroom language and the curriculum. Knowledge itself became the main focus of study, namely how knowledge was defined, controlled, and transmitted to students. During the 1970s and 1980s the ‘new sociology of education’ stood in opposition to the ‘old’ and was manifested particularly in resistance theory and social and cultural reproduction theories. Although it is clear that developments in educational sociology have moved into other ‘newer’ directions (Noblit and Pink 1995), the influence of the ‘new sociology of education’ continues in much of current theoretical debate and research.

A third new direction in educational sociology emerged in the United States. Sociologists began to use causal models to investigate the multiple determinants of educational outcomes, and subsequently, the effect of educational attainments on occupational and career attainments. Although the use of highly quantifiable data and statistical techniques was not new in the sociological study of education on either side of the Atlantic, the development of status attainment models added social-psychological variables to the educational and occupational attainment process. The use of causal (path) models has dominated aspects of educational research from the 1970s to the present day in many countries.

A fourth and more recent development in educational sociology is that of critical theory, particularly with respect to the study of education as a form of oppression by dominant groups, or education as means of liberation from oppression. Critical theory emerged out of the Frankfurt School in Germany in 1923. During the ensuing years, including a period of dispersion during the Second World War, members of the Frankfurt School developed a range of theoretical approaches which were a reaction to the scientism of positivist sociology, and an attempt to develop a general theoretical approach which combined theory and practice. These writers included Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse, and Habermas. Although the focal points and precise details of the writers vary, the general perspective and its implications for education are coherent and relevant. Critical theory is based on the assumption that the power of capitalism has come to dominate all aspects of social life. Concepts such as ‘the totally administered society,’ ‘one dimensional man,’ and ‘communicative competence’ typify the portrayal of social life in modern capitalism. The purpose of critical theory is not simply to explain and analyze, but also to emancipate and transform society in the process (the unity of theory and practice).

By the late 1970s educational sociology had moved into the mainstream of sociological debate generally. These debates became so important that some writers suggested that educational sociology had become a battleground for theories and policies about inequality and social reform. By the mid-1980s educational sociology had become very much a mainstream area in the discipline of sociology generally.

5. Educational Sociology In Various Countries

Early surveys of research in educational sociology, for example in the Federal Republic of Germany, France, and Britain, suggest that the functionalist perspective was dominant during the 1950s and 1960s. However, during this period it was in France that Marxist approaches were developed.

There is now growing documentation about the current development of educational sociology in Western countries. Surveys of research in educational sociology, for example, in the United States (Dreeben 1994), the former Federal Republic of Germany (Chisholm 1996), the Netherlands (Wesselingh 1996), and South Africa (Muller 1996), to name a few, present a picture of a rapidly growing discipline with shifting and multiple paradigms.

In many countries educational sociology was late in becoming established. In India, for example, the earliest identifiable studies in educational sociology were conducted in 1953 and 1967 (Chitnis 1982). In 1974 there were only 89 educational studies that could be classified and reviewed as sociological, but by 1980 the number had more than doubled.

Also in Spain, like many other countries outside the United States and Britain, educational sociology was slow in getting established. Early studies occurred in the 1960s and were typified by an emphasis on human capital theory, particularly in relation to economic development in Spain (Subirats 1990). Spain is an example of a country where sociology was not favored politically. However, after 1970 educational sociology began to develop in more radical ways. Much influenced by French sociology, educational sociology since the mid-1970s has been dominated by the neo-Marxist perspective, with research being conducted on schooling and social reproduction, into the effectiveness (or noneffectiveness) of schools, the link between school and work, and particularly on the role of universities in social reform.

6. Themes And Developments In Educational Sociology

Although educational sociology has branched into a number of identifiable subfields such as the sociology of the curriculum and the sociology of teaching, there are a number of themes that have dominated both theory and research across all specialties. In this section a number of these themes are described in terms of their relevance for educational knowledge and research.

6.1 Macro Micro Perspectives And Structure And Agency

Since the 1970s, one of the major issues in sociology generally has been the dualism between macro and micro approaches to the study of human behavior. Macro approaches typically focus upon aspects of social structures as explanatory variables, and thus tend to adopt deterministic and constraining theories about human behavior, with little or no acknowledgment of individual autonomy or freedom. Typical variables for the macro-oriented sociologists are those of social class, gender, ethnicity, capitalism, and/organizational hierarchies. Conversely, micro oriented sociologists tend to focus upon individual actors, regarding them as autonomous actors with few or no constraints by the outside social and structural environment. Typical variables for the micro sociologists are the subjective meanings of human interaction, resistance, action, and voluntarism.

In the study of education this has meant an almost irreconcilable gulf. Those adopting a macro perspective have tended to study the statistical relationships between variables, largely measuring structural characteristics such as socioeconomic status, social class, gender, ethnicity, and the like. Those taking a micro approach have focused on interaction patterns, individual attitudes, values, or beliefs, or the subjective meanings that individuals construct about educational realities. The impasse between the ‘two sociologies’ has prompted some sociologists to observe that the only solution is to continue to develop both macro and microsociology.

Related to the macro micro controversy, and perhaps an obstacle to solving it, has been the question of structure and agency. The conceptualization of these two dimensions of social action also represents a dualism in the sociological study of education. This dualism focuses around explanations of social action: large-scale structural (and therefore deterministic) forces or individual voluntarist forces. Thus, social action is seen as existing on two distinct levels. Examples of the former in the sociology of education are structuralist neo-Marxists, who explain social reproduction in schools in terms of the contradictions of the capitalist economic system. Regarding the agency frame of reference, those who adopt an interpretive perspective tend to see the source of action at the individual or the microlevel, but with a reference to the structural context.

6.2 Critical Theory, Critical Pedagogy, And Postmodernism

The sociological study of education has been influenced by the intellectual movements of the late twentieth century, such as postmodernism, deconstructionism, and critical pedagogy. These intellectual movements approach the study of education from a critical, oppositional, and sometimes neo-Marxist perspective.

Critical Pedagogy, derived from the critical theory perspective, advocates that the classroom should become the arena for ‘… intellectual resistance towards the ways in which our roles, our lives, and our subjectivities are defined and constituted’ (Shapiro 1995, p. 191). Ultimately those who espouse critical pedagogy in classrooms seek to establish a truly democratic culture through a form of education that is empowering and liberating in terms of the dominant ideology.

Modernism refers to the industrial revolution, the artistic and literary movements of the twentieth century, and the beliefs and values of the Enlightenment, such as the idea of progress, and belief in reason and principles such as equality, liberty, and justice. In contrast, postmodernism rejects linear views of progress, relies more on a dialectical analysis of the opposing forces in society, and stresses a democratic, emancipatory and antitotalitarian theory and practice, particularly with respect to education.

Postmodernism, as a social theory and intellectual movement, differs from critical pedagogy and critical theory in that the notion of an underlying reality is denied. The notion of a postmodernist break or rupture with modernity has occurred through the penetration of the media, advertising and television. The surface signs (language) take on their own meaning. It has been argued that postmodernist social theory makes the notion of intellectual resistance and liberation meaningless (Shapiro 1995), and thus with little educational relevance.

As theoretical movements, it remains to be seen as to how these two will influence the social understanding of educational processes and educational policy and practice in the twenty-first century.

6.3 Equality And Excellence

In most Western societies, the concept of equality has been central to much of the planning for and expectations from educational systems. Generally speaking, structured social inequality is defined as a social problem, and education is usually seen as a way of resolving it. Furthermore most modern democracies espouse the principles of meritocracy in educational opportunity and social rewards. In this context, education plays a double role, for not only is it expected to provide a major mechanism for bringing about greater equality, but it also serves as a mechanism for self-betterment, and therefore for social mobility.

Clearly then, since education is linked with equality and inequality, it is essential to clarify what is meant by the term. Two seemingly contradictory dimensions underlie notions of equality with respect to education. The first of these includes the notions of fairness and equity, and generally means that ‘random inequalities of nature’ should be acknowledged and taken into account in the educative process. Thus, naturally bright children should be treated in ways which will allow that brightness to be developed to its fullest. Not to do so would be unequal and inefficient.

However, there is a second dimension, and that is that education should help to rectify (mitigate) the ‘random inequities of nature.’ In other words, insofar as is possible, every person should have an equal opportunity to excel in ways that are not constrained by natural differences. Sociological research in education has addressed the origins of inequality in education, the consequences of inequality, and policies that may make educational access and outcomes more equitable. Much of the research into the importance of family background and schooling in educational and occupational attainments has the question of inequality underlying it. Ultimately, the extent to which education either creates or reinforces these inequalities means that it operates in an inequitable manner. Thus, the subfields of adult education, the curriculum, learning, special education, and teaching are all concerned, in one form or another, with equality and efficiency in the educational system.

6.4 Gender And Education

The process of differentiation by sex in education occurs early in schooling and continues throughout the education process. In most countries, the attainments and achievement of males and females at different education levels, and in different subject areas, differs considerably. In a study of science achievement in ten countries (Australia, England, Finland, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States), between 1970 and 1984, Keeves and Kotte (1992) found that the social roles of women changed in all countries with respect to participation in the labor force and declining fertility rates. They also found that the participation of women in secondary and tertiary levels had increased, and in some countries, the participation rates for women were higher than that for males.

The results of their study showed that in all 10 countries boys outperformed girls in science, even when other variables were taken into account, such as home background, aptitude of student, values and motivation to do science, and attitudes toward science. The authors concluded, however, that their model left much unanswered in explaining why it is that boys do better in science than girls: ‘… it is not firmly established exactly how the effects of being male or female operate to influence achievement outcomes in science’ (Keeves and Kotte 1992, p. 163). Although it can be argued that sex differentiation has its origins in the family socialization processes during infancy and childhood, the school remains a key institution that accounts for some unequal educational outcomes. The school both constructs and reconstructs gender relations such that the subordinate status of females is continually confirmed. The fact that females are staying in school longer in many countries does not mean that gender differences are being eradicated. Questions of gender in education apply to teachers as well as students. Sex inequalities in student academic and career outcomes have often been related to the influence, subtle or otherwise, of the sex of teachers. More importantly the sex inequalities among teachers regarding their work experience and career opportunities have become a topic of importance for understanding the influence of gender in education generally.

Continued research into the processes of maintaining sex divisions in schooling will remain high on the agenda of educational sociology. Furthermore, social policies to eradicate gender inequalities in schooling can only become effective when they are based on sound research evidence, which until now remains inadequate.

6.5 Cultural Diversity And Multicultural Education

The movement of peoples across and between national boundaries continues to pose important research issues for educational sociology. The schooling of minority groups within countries has been a longstanding item on the sociology research agenda, particularly in countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia. In these and similar countries the emergence of heterogeneous populations through voluntary and nonvoluntary migration has called into question again whether education serves as an assimilationist mechanism or a protector of unique cultural systems and identities. In reality the debate over the notion of a core curriculum and a multicultural curriculum has yet to be resolved, particularly with respect to learning among members of race and ethnic minorities (Ogbu 1992).

Considerable research has been conducted on the factors that contribute to the academic achievement of minority groups in various countries. However, these studies have often assumed homogeneity within minority groups themselves, and have also assumed that members of minority groups share similar values toward education and its outcomes. However, research findings make it clear that this is not the case, and that for indigenous groups and other racial and ethnic minorities, ‘differentness’ and ‘otherness,’ both between and within groups, are major factors in explaining educational processes and outcomes.

Ogbu (1992) has argued that both countries which advocate a strong core curriculum (as in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan), and those which support a more pluralistic multicultural curriculum, overlook the wider societal and dominant cultural impact on the learning processes of minority students.

Educational sociologists will focus more on the processes related to the education of refugees, to the consequences of new international economic and social alliances, such as the European Community, and improved knowledge about the determinants of academic achievement across and within minority groups of all types.

6.6 Dropouts And Burnouts: Alienation In Schools

School retention rates have steadily increased since the 1960s in almost all countries. Nevertheless, there will remain considerable concern over those students in the twenty-first century who do not complete secondary school. There are numerous reasons for this concern. Rumberger (1987) gives five: (a) the short-term increase in dropouts since 1968, at least in the United States, (b) the numbers of minority group students with high dropout rates are increasing, (c) as academic standards increase, dropout rates will also increase, (d) the standard of educational credentials for virtually all jobs can be expected to increase, and (e) completion rates will increasingly be used as an indicator of performance for secondary schools.

Most of the research on school dropouts has regarded the phenomenon as pathological, and as representing a loss to the individual as well as to society. Lee and Burkham (1992) group the causes of dropping out into three categories: (a) the personal and psychological characteristics of dropouts, (b) the academic and psychological behaviors of dropouts, and (c) schools as contributors to dropping out. Thus, they argue that dropouts (or ‘at risk’ students) tend to come from low status, minority backgrounds, from single parent or step-parent households, are alienated, make lower grades, have higher rates of truancy, and do not attend schools (such as Catholic schools) which have lower dropout rates (1992, pp. 422–3).

LeCompte and Dworkin (1991) draw similar conclusions, but direct attention to the equivalent phenomenon among teachers, namely burnout. They argue that teachers also experience alienation and often leave the teaching profession because of burnout. However they observe that many teachers who experience burnout and lose their commitment do not leave the profession, a process they call teacher entrapment. This phenomenon poses two problems for the quality of teaching in schools: (a) new programs are difficult to implement with unenthusiastic teachers, and (b) staffing becomes a problem when teachers who should leave, do not. The authors suggest that school reforms fail because of inappropriate measures of school success or failure, of mismatched reforms, of quick-fix reforms, or reforms that leave the alienating structure unchanged. In short, the problem of alienation in schools, both from individual and structural causes, results in problems that are only beginning to be researched. Educational sociologists in most countries will continue to research these processes as long as there are school dropouts and burned-out teachers.

7. Educational Sociology And Educational Policy And Planning

Educational planning generally is understood to be the identification, development, and implementation of strategies designed to attain, efficiently and effectively, the educational needs and goals of students and society. The practice of educational planning is not a new phenomenon and, according to some, can be traced to the writings of Plato, to Renaissance scholars, and more recently to post-Second World War experts.

What characterizes current activities is that planners have tended to rely upon nonsociological assumptions in formulating their planning models. Demographic projections, manpower models, rate-of-return approaches, and school mapping all approach the task of educational planning as though the social aspects of educational behavior were irrelevant. Each of these techniques has at its base an implicit theory that assumes that the needs of society can be clearly specified and measured in economic terms, and that the social behavior of individuals in response to these needs is unproblematic. It is for this reason that writers argue that educational planning needs a social theory of society that includes structure and process, and both macro- and microdimensions.

We have learned from research and from all theoretical perspectives that the actors in the planning process, the politicians, bureaucrats, and planners are part of the very system they want to change. The functionalists can explain how it is that these persons act largely to preserve the status quo, even though the planning programs may appear very radical. The Marxists can explain in whose interests planning decisions are made, while the interactionists can explain at the microlevel how and why the actors in the planning process come to define planning objectives in particular ways, and how competing views are ‘defined away.’

Finally, sociological research has helped us understand the importance of consultation with all interested parties in the educational planning process. It has been argued that the compensatory education and desegregation programs in the United States were flawed by lack of adequate information about objectives and methods. Resistance to any social reform can indicate conflicting interests which could have been avoided had adequate information been obtained beforehand. It is only by understanding these social forces that means can be taken to ensure that the objectives and strategies of educational planning are appropriately, efficiently and effectively formulated and implemented.

8. Educational Sociology In The Twenty-first Century

The rapid development of educational sociology during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has resulted in considerable accumulated knowledge about educational systems and how they work in different cultural and/organizational settings. The discipline has become increasingly relevant for policy making, as well as for theoretical development and methodological application. It is also a discipline which is increasingly comparative, as knowledge about educational systems across national and cultural boundaries adds to both our knowledge of consistencies in educational processes, as well as the idiosyncratic properties of education in different structural and cultural settings.

Because it is problem-driven, the future of educational sociology will continue to reflect the preoccupations of countries in the performance of schools and the needs of society. In this respect, Durkheim was correct in arguing that education was imminently social. It will continue to be so, and will continue to attract the vigorous attention of sociologists and educational researchers who take a sociological perspective.


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