As a new team we want to rethink what sociology of education is about, what scholarship in it means, what its purpose and promises are. This is a point of taking stock of the discipline and its potential. We also want to outline our own standpoints and suggestions for TASA’s sociology of education group, and to start a conversation about where to from here.
On the other hand we have a large number of political challenges that means not only challenges to funding, but also challenges to the way education operates in Australia as well as overseas. A simple example is that though public discussions around budgets are conducted in a philosophical register about issues like social justice, equality and equity, there is something of a social attack on education as an institution, on the role of governments in funding and supporting education, which can be understood as potentially exacerbating inequalities in societies and between societies, or not caring if these inequalities persist or are exacerbated. These political debates have consequences, and matter in a number of ways that sociology relates, including to the social functions of education (through message systems or logics), the conflict between people in education and societies, in the emphasis of the discourses and practices of particular groups, in the narrowing down of imagined social futures and in the legitimating of power imbalances.
(See for example the differences between the Australian Government’s denial about the importance of governments in relation to equality and outcomes —
in comparison to the OECD’s alarm about growing inequalities — http://www.oecd.org/social/soc/dividedwestandwhyinequalitykeepsrising.htm. The sociologist Thomas Picketty’s own diagnosis of these crises in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is even more sobering:
Sociology of education tends to be tied quite intimately to the effects of political things, and sociology can and should engage with some of these broader discussions about the role and function of education within societies, and in relation to particular claims that are made about the social contract that institutions of education should fulfil. From Marx onwards one of the most important roles that sociology has fulfilled is providing language, concepts, methods and theories to enable a description of the effects of political idealism on the lives of people and groups. This has not only been a means of fulfilling a sometimes questionable emancipatory aim, but also to acknowledge and describe the different social worlds (or versions of the social world) that we inhabit. Acknowledging means giving weight to these social worlds, and adding weight to the experiences of people in these worlds. And in the case of sociology, this means engaging with statistical reasoning, classes and categories.
However, we want the discussion about the sociology of education in TASA to be more than just reactionary to political changes and policy impacts. The broader point of sociology of education is to offer alternative diagnoses and challenges to idealised representations of education, to the material effects of these representations, and to the experiences and practices of education both within and outside of institutions. So where to from here?