Symbolic Interactionism And Education Essay Title

Comparison of functionalism and symbolic interactionism

Both functionalism and symbolic interactionism are sociological theories i.e. sets of ideas which provide an explanation for human society. Like all theory, sociological theory is selective because it cannot explain everything or account for the infinite amount of data that exist. Theories are therefore selective in terms of their priorities and perspectives and the data they define as significant. As a result, they provide a particular and partial view of reality. There are a wide variety of sociological theories, and they can be grouped together according to various criteria. One of the most important of these is the distinction between structural or macro perspectives and social action or micro perspectives. These perspectives differ in the way they approach the analysis of society. Functionalism is an example of a macro perspective as it analyses the way society as a whole fits together whereas symbolic interactionism is a micro perspective because it stresses the meaningfulness of human behaviour and denies that it is primarily determined by the structure of society.

Functionalist analysis has a long history in sociology and it first emerged in 19th century Europe. It is prominent in the work of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Comte, who is credited with inventing the term sociology, aimed to create a naturalistic science of society to explain past development of mankind and predict its future course. He said that there would be basic laws, but also some added complexities. Spencer used organic analogies to demonstrate his views of society and he concluded that with evolutionary growth come changes in any unit’s structure and functions and that increases in size of units is invariably accompanied by an increase in the differentiation of social activities. Functionalism was developed by Emile Durkheim and refined by Talcott Parsons as well as by Robert K. Merton. It was the dominant social theory during the 1940s and 1950s, but since that time it has steadily dropped from favour, partly because of damaging criticism, partly because other approaches are seen to answer certain questions more successfully, and partly because it simply went out of fashion. Symbolic interactionism as opposed to functionalism is a distinctly American branch of sociology and it emerged later in the 19th century or rather in the early part of the 20th century. It is developed from the work of a group of American philosophers who included John Dewey, William I. Thomas and George Herbert Mead all of whom were influenced by William James and Charles Horton Cooley. George Herbert Mead is generally regarded as the founder of symbolic interactionism which was later refined by Herbert Blumer. It has been criticised for reflecting the cultural ideals of American society and for being idiographically biased. Both theories have been very influential and symbolic interactionism continues to be a lively tradition in American social psychology. Also Turner and Maryanski have argued that, although functionalism has many flaws, it remains useful and that many of its basic assumptions still guide much sociological research.

Functionalism views society as a system: that is, as a set of interconnected parts which together form a whole. The basic unit of analysis is society, and its various parts are understood primarily in terms of their relationship to the whole. The most important aspects of functionalism are structure, function, functional prerequisites, value consensus and social order, all of which are incorporated in the theory. The early functionalists often drew an analogy between society and an organism such as the human body. They argued that an understanding of any organ in the body, such as the heart or lungs, involves an understanding of its relationship to other organs and, in particular, its contribution towards the maintenance of the organism. In the same way, an understanding of any part of society requires an analysis of its relationship to other parts and, most importantly, its contribution to the maintenance of society. Continuing this analogy, functionalists argued that, just as an organism has certain basic needs that must be met if it is to continue to exist. Thus the main social institutions – such as the family, the economy, religion, and the educational and political systems – are analysed as a part of the social system rather than as isolated units. In particular, they are understood with reference to the contribution they make to the system as a whole. The basic needs or necessary conditions of existence are sometimes known as the functional prerequisites of society, but it is often hard to identify them. The concept of function in functionalist analysis refers to the contribution of the part to the whole. More specifically, the function of any part of society is the contribution it makes to meeting the functional prerequisites of the social system. Parts of society are functional in so far as they maintain the system and contribute to its survival. Thus a function of the family is to ensure the continuity of society by reproducing and socialising new members. A function of religion is to integrate the social system by reinforcing common values. Functionalists also employ the concept of ‘dysfunction’ to refer to the effects of any social institution which detract from the maintenance of society. However, in practice, they have been primarily concerned with the search for functions, and relatively little use has been made of the concept of dysfunction. Functionalist analysis has focused on the question of how social systems are maintained. This focus has tended to result in a positive evaluation of the parts of society and so many institutions are seen as being beneficial and useful to society. Some institutions, such as the family, religion and social stratification, are even seen as indispensable. This view has led critics to argue that functionalism has a built-in conservative bias which supports the status quo.

Durkheim has very opposing views to symbolic interactionism as he rejects that society is constructed by its members. He argued that society has a reality of its own over and above the individuals who comprise it. Members of society are constrained by social facts, by ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual and constraints, whether in the form of laws or customs, come into play whenever social demands are being violated. Beliefs and moral codes are passed on from one generation to the next and shared by individuals who make up a society. From this point of view it is not the consciousness of the individual that directs behaviour, but common beliefs and sentiments that transcend the individual and shape his or her consciousness. Durkheim assumes that the explanation for the continuing existence of a social fact lies in its function, that is, in its usefulness for society. He thinks that society has certain functional prerequisitions, the most important of which is the need for social order which is necessary because of human nature. He believes that humans have two sides to their nature. One side is elfish and egoistical. Humans tend to look after their own interests, which makes it difficult for individuals to be integrated into society. However, there is another side to human nature: the ability to believe in moral values. Society has made use of this side of human nature if social life is to be possible. Durkeim assumes that social life is achieved by consensus, a collective conscience consisting of common beliefs and sentiments. This constraints individuals to act in terms of the requirements of the society. Since the collective conscience is a social fact and therefore external to the individual, it is essential that it be impressed upon him or her.


According to the symbolic interaction perspective, interactions between students and teachers help each develop a set of expectations for that student's performance both in academic subjects and discipline. In particular, interaction theorists posit that through the teacher expectancy effect, a teacher's expectations of a student's performance or achievement influence the actual performance or achievement of that student. When that expectation is low, students then react by finding other outlets for positive feedback or by accepting the expectations of the teacher as true; living down to their potential. Although there has been some research done to test the validity of this approach, research in this area is difficult to perform for practical and ethical reasons. However, the interactionist perspective does have applicability in the classroom, particularly regarding differential tracking systems.

Keywords Conflict Perspective; Education; Hidden Curriculum; Reinforcement; Self-Fulfilling Prophecy; Social Stratification; Symbolic Interactionism; Teacher Expectancy Effect; Tracking

Educational Sociology: Sociology of Education Theory: Symbolic Interactionism


There are many aspects to education that can affect what and how a child learns. The formal curriculum articulates the prescribed subject matter that is taught to the student such as basic skills (i.e., reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic) or more advanced or elective courses (e.g., art, music, ecology). In addition, some theorists posit that students are also taught the agenda of a hidden curriculum, or the standards of proper behavior for a society or culture that are taught within the school system. The hidden curriculum is not part of the articulated curricula for schools, but is taught subtly through the reinforcement of behavior and attitudes that are deemed appropriate by the society or culture. For example, along with being taught material in academic subject areas, children are also taught to raise their hand before asking a question, ask permission before going to the restroom, only work on certain subjects during certain hours of the day, not to talk in class, and obey the rules that most teachers find essential for maintaining order in the classroom.

Teacher Expectancy Effect

Students often pick up on their teachers' expectations of them and perform accordingly. The teacher expectancy effect is the impact of a teacher's expectations of a student's performance or achievement on the actual performance or achievement of that student. In this type of self-fulfilling prophecy, the student may pick up on subtle (or not so subtle) cues from the teacher about how well s/he should be performing. For example, if a teacher thinks that a student should be in the top quartile of the class, but s/he is only performing at the fiftieth percentile, the teacher may attempt to encourage the student to perform up to his or her potential by reinforcing high performing behavior or trying to shame the student into higher performance. Teacher expectancies, however, do not necessarily need to be overt or consciously performed in order to impact student behavior. For example, if a student is mistakenly placed in a remedial reading group, s/he may not be given the opportunity for advanced reading because the teacher does not expect him/her to do well and therefore misses the signs that the student can handle more advanced material. Conflict theorists see this as a way of reinforcing social stratification by reinforcing children so that they stay within their class. Symbolic interactionists, on the hand, see the interactions between students and teachers as a prime way to help students improve.

The symbolic interactionist perspective assumes that one's self-concept is created through the interpretation of the symbolic gestures, words, actions, and appearances of others as observed during social interactions. In education, students and teachers each develop a set of expectations for a student's performance both in academic subjects and discipline, as well as for the teacher's behavior. The actions of the teacher toward the student may help set up a situation where the student can more easily fulfill these expectations. In addition, the teacher may unconsciously look for behaviors that support the teacher's expectations. In other words, the expectations actually cause the behavior rather than predict it. For example, if a middle class teacher expects lower class children to perform more poorly in school, s/he may act in ways that actually encourage them to do so. S/he may not give the lower class students the same attention that s/he gives the other students in the class, may not give additional help or homework that would enable them to do better in school, or ignore them when they ask a question. Although none of this may be done consciously or maliciously, the students will eventually learn that it is not worth the effort to ask a question or to study hard because the teacher is unlikely to help or encourage them. Eventually, this turns into a situation where the lower class students actually do perform more poorly, not necessarily because they have less ability but because they have not been given the same encouragement, reinforcement, or educational opportunities as the other students (Fritzberg, 2001).


Children are often labeled in educational systems in general or the classroom specifically. One child, for example, might be placed in a remedial track that receives less challenging work while another child is put into the gifted track and is challenged to do his/her best. Even outside the formal tracking system, students can be labeled informally as trouble makers, developmentally slow, or as poor leaders. Once a child is labeled in this manner, the cycle of reinforcement for that kind of behavior begins. For example, a child who is considered not to have leadership potential may not be given leadership positions where s/he could learn and practice leadership skills while other children are given that opportunity. Eventually, the child denied the experience of being a leader will typically be less able to lead than other children who are given the opportunity, even if their innate abilities are equal.

Interactionists are particularly interested in the impact of tracking in the educational system on student performance. Interactionists have studied the teacher expectancy effect and found that it is particularly important in the lower grades (i.e., through grade 3). For example, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968, as cited in Fritzberg, 2001) administered a verbal and reasoning pretest to elementary school students and then randomly selected a sample of 20 percent of the students and designated them as "spurters" from whom teachers could expect superior performance. Because the students in this group had been randomly selected, they represented all levels of ability and were not, in fact, all from the top 20 percent of students as rated by the pretests. However, a later posttest found that the children who had been labeled as spurters scored significantly higher than children who had not been labeled as spurters despite their scores on the pretests. Not only did the rankings of the children's test scores change, but they also received differential ratings from the teachers. Students who had been labeled as spurters were rated by teachers as being more interesting, more curious, and better adjusted than the other students. The researchers concluded that the improvements in performance were a result of the differences in the teachers' perceptions of the students (Fritzberg, 2001).

Other researchers have also found that teachers' expectations affect students' performance. For example, research has found that teachers tend to wait longer for answers from a student whom they believe to be a high achiever and are more apt to give such students a second chance than they are to students they believe are lower achievers. Research has found that this applies not only to academic subjects requiring mental skills and abilities, but to subjects requiring physical abilities as well. For example, one study found that students who were expected to...

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