Interactionism, Functionalism and Conflict Theories in Education


Various theories study the society and structures in the society from various perspectives. These analyses help in understanding how various institutions function, and how to improve them. Sociologists’ perspectives of education differ depending on the theories adopted for analysis. However, it appears that there are very many areas of interaction between these theoretical analyses while dealing with education. While conflict and functionalist theory can help in understanding external forces affecting education and performance, the interaction theory lacks the potential to fully understanding the role of external forces in shaping education but is important to exploring internal forces affecting education and performance of students. unctionalism mostly appears to explore the role of education in the society, while conflict theory focuses on issues, challenges, and conditions affecting education. Interactionist theory mostly scrutinizes the conditions affecting education and learning.

Sociologists adopt macro and micro levels of analysis for various social patterns. Micro level deals with specific events in a society, while macro level analysis regard to study of social patterns in a “wide picture” view. Sociologists offer an understanding of how society affects individuals and how individuals affect the social institutions by use of social theories. These theories include such aspects as human behavior. The mainstream theories used by sociologists today are functionalism, interractionist and conflict theories.

These theories apply to understanding of education institutions and education in general perspective. These theories help understand the impact of education on the society and individuals, the value and function of education, as well as the existing gaps. The study of education in light of these three theories is important to understanding the current situation and difficulties, with an intention of improving the institution.

This paper will discuss how these three theories view education, education institutions, as well as interactions among the various stakeholders in education. As shall be seen in this paper, criticisms on these theories are important to understanding the differences among the theories, in view of education and aspects in education institutions. It also establishes how these theories affect different views of the different stakeholders in education such as teachers and students. The paper determines the differences among these theories as refers to education.

Introduction to Functionalism, Interractionism and Conflict theories

Unlike Interactionism, functionalism and conflict study the society and social institutions from a macro analysis perspective. Functionalism theory applies in the studying of the functioning of the different aspects of the society. In addition, the theory discusses how the different institutions or aspects relate to each other. Conflict theory helps understand existing competition among individuals in a given society to acquire or use scarce resources. The theory can help understand the role of wealth in society, for example, the wealth people get advantage over the weak and poor. Interactionist theory studies interactions among individuals of the society by use of such mechanisms as symbols.

The interactionist theory also known as symbolic interactionist theory helps interpret meanings of symbols used in a society. According to this theory, symbols are necessary to shaping behavior of individuals, because individuals have different understanding of different symbols. Again, different people attach different meanings to symbols. These symbols include verbal communications. The sender hopes that these words and symbols will have the same meaning to the receiver.

Critics of interactionist theory point out that the theory ignores macro level analysis of the societal components. The critics also argue that the theory neglects the study of the impacts of social forces on the interactions among individuals in the society.

Functionalist perspective argues that each of the aspects in the society affects the overall functioning of the society. As such, there should be a manner in which all members in a given society agree to work together to a common goal. This common goal should benefit all members. This is termed as social consensus or cohesion. Critics argue that the theory does not discuss or explore negative functions of the aspects of the society. In addition to justifying the status quo in the society, the theory is also weak for not encouraging individuals to act as social change agents in the society. This is true even when change is beneficial to all members of the society. In fact, social change leads to problems, which costs the individuals in the given society, according to the theory, and therefore, change is not desirable.

Conflict theory recognizes that the society is constantly changing and conflicts exist among individuals or aspects in a society. It differs with interactionist and functionalist theories in that it concentrates on exploring the negative, conflicting, and changing nature of the aspects in the society.

According to this theory, power and wealth has an important role in affecting social order. Both establish inequality in the society in that the rich and powerful impart this order on the unfortunate in the society. Some criticisms for this theory include the argument that the theory posits that positive aspects of the society such as democracy and humanitarian courses seek to control masses rather than preserve social order and the society in general.

Interactionist, Functionalist and Conflict theories in Education

Functionalist theory views education as an important institution to passing knowledge and skills to people. Bennett & LeCompte (1990) observes that functions of education cut across political, economical, and social aspects. Education also plays an important role to socializing people in the mainstream society, according to this theory. Education helps to maintain social order (Sadovnik, 2007). Different people from different backgrounds enter into the society mainstream through “moral education”. It helps confer various values and controls among individuals in a society. Controls emanate from the political and legal frameworks in a given society. For instance, schools receive awards for observing deadlines and schedules established in legal structures. In addition, values such as patriotism feature in education systems. Political studies offer stories of individuals in the political institution such as Abraham Lincoln and their virtues, for example.

While some education institutions adore individualism of learners, some encourage both individualism and teamwork competition. These aspects feature in legal frameworks and teachers find themselves as having lesser roles to changing the nature of them. Individualism supports individual achievements through exam and test scores. Thus, education may encourage seeking the best people in the society and identifying the top achievers, which is a form of inequality (Sadovnik, 2007; Hurn, 1993). These are some of the aspects of education change discussed in the theory. In addition, education can help learners to seek identity and develop self-esteem. This kind of individualism feature in the United States education system as an example.

Group work success focuses on development of leadership skills, for example. Therefore, education can boost development of individuals in learning roles and responsibilities to take in the future. This is the case with preparation of individuals for future occupations (Clark, 1962). This is an important aspect of this theory as it links the employers’ view of education to empowering students with skills necessary to perform jobs. This occurs through formal and informal training. Group work may also encourage social skills and collaboration among individuals as a wider role of education.

Some institutions also encourage liberty rights among individuals. In fact, other authors point out that the modern role of education includes maintaining a democratic and equality in the society (Parsons, 1959). This means that education helps develops a fair society. It helps people learn to develop social esteem and a culture of working today. An example is Japanese education institution, which encourages teamwork and group identity rather than individualism. In addition, education fosters connection and networking among individuals, which is likely to become professional in future. Various individuals sharing classes and courses have the opportunity to connect with one another. Sociologists study how sorting helps people of equal potential, income, and interests end up together, even to marriage. Some students prefer group efforts while others prefer individual efforts in learning, but the lawmakers and teachers play an important role to instilling these perceptions through practice.

Education also helps individuals learn competition. This is inside and outside classroom. Students receive rewards and prizes when they emerge as top performers in competitive games and tests or exams. This acts as a motivator, and may help students to attach winning with rewards before they serve as important members of the society in the future. Individuals are also sorted based on performance in tests and games. This helps to channel competitive people to competitive roles as demands dictate. This refers to social placement. Occupational placement role of education features in the technical-function theory discussions (Collins, 1971). According to an analysis by Collins (1971), jobs require particular skills to perform and students with the right abilities and training get the opportunities. This introduces stratification in education.

The theory also points out the importance of education in imparting change as well as preserving the culture. Students achieve different perspectives and become more liberal as they progress through various education institutions. People are likely to become conservatistic in nature if they do not progress to higher levels of education. By engaging in research, it is likely for individuals to change knowledge and culture and values. Preservation of ideas, cultures, and values occur when education transfer past knowledge. Education is also seeking to replace family role in the modern century. This is for example through instilling discipline to students and teaching human sexuality. In the past, such functions were for the family institution to execute. Teachers’ views are important aspects in developing change to foster successful learning, especially where education systems are under frequent reviews.

Unlike functionalism theory, conflict theory addresses the importance of the societal forces in shaping the educational institution. Since the society has inequalities in power and wealth distribution, education fosters these inequalities since it preserves the role of the powerful people. Indeed, cultural capital is an important determiner of success in education (Bourdieu, 1973). The least powerful are supposed to obey the powerful people in the society, according to the theory. This implicates the relationship between teachers and the political class or the lawmakers. The latter are the powerful in the society. Teachers expect to receive and obey directions from the ministry and observe legal guidelines. Sometimes, teachers disregard these calls and advocate for change in education policies.

However, the theory also studies the various roles of education such as done in functionalist theory. It recognizes the role of education in sorting, but it views sorting as achieved in ethnic lines and distinction of societal classes. This is in contrast with the functionalist theory, which views the basis of sorting as being individual merit. For example, “hidden curriculum” seeks to train working class so that the society accommodates them as low-class in the society. Conflict theory establishes the understanding of changing demands of educational requirements to offer the right and needed technical skills for employment (Collins, 1971).

According to conflict theory, schools receive funding through citizen taxes, which mean that those schools in rich communities are likely to receive more funding. This introduces inequality. Through use of more funds, such schools can attract best workforce and purchase necessary equipments to facilitate learning. This means that the students in these schools get more advantages since they can score more marks and end up with placement in high-level institutions. They are also likely to end up being highly paid professionals. This compares to those students from less affluent societies who may end up being poor. In the latter category, many do not go to good schools. Conflicts theory recognizes the existence of conflict among students and teachers, as well as other stakeholders (Sadovnik, 2007).

Education encourages use of biased testing mechanisms such as use of IQs. These tests favor some students based on their cultural knowledge. These test instruments assume and ignore important issues such as the opportunity students had for development of cultural competence. However, this view is contentious, since test experts argue that modern tests do not feature aspects of cultural competence. According to the theory, it is not possible to achieve a situation of cultural neutrality. Conflict theory contends that education fosters capitalism because it encourages creation of docile employees. It fosters control of weak by the powerful through establishment of power structures. Like the functionalist theory, conflict theory can help focus on macro forces affecting education. However, theories give little attention on how student and teacher behavior affect institutions or one another. The interactionist theory addresses this weakness.

Interactionist theory makes use of the happenings in the classrooms to analyze education and the aspects of education. Interaction theory applies to the education because there is formation of small social groupings where socialization occurs through support and communication (Morris, Eugene & Jerry, 1975). According to this theory, the expectations placed on students them by their teachers affect performance. They have the ability to shape and affect student and attitudes to learning and education institutions in general. For instance, research has shown that students are likely to achieve more when teachers expect it. Research has also found that teachers’ perception on students’ competence influence the teachers’ arrangement of pupils in the class.

Teachers may prefer having “top performers” sit closer to them. A research found out that such perception by the teacher partly results from interplay of other issues such as the students’ social class origin. Students who sit closer to teachers receive more attention and can perform better than their peers can. This establishes inequality. Thus, interactionist theory in education can help understand how inequalities occur in education. This is the same case with the conflict theory. Like conflict theory, it can help understand the various forces affecting student performance in educational institutions. Unlike the conflict and functionalist theory, interaction theory does not show the “big picture” in education. For example, it ignores understanding of the quality of education system.

Interactionsist theory can help understand group interactions among various individuals. These interactions are important to helping individuals learn behaviors observed from other students. These interactions manifest through group discussions (Morris, Eugene & Jerry, 1975). Students in these groups can also learn social responsibilities as they interact with each other.

Interactionsist theory can help explain why these interactions among individuals are important in environments where colleges and education institutions do not foster teamwork. These interactions are necessary for successful learning. For instance, a common complaint among higher learning institutions is that quality of learning deteriorates when students do not invest time to know many of their colleagues (Sekuler, 1972).


Interactionist, functionalist and conflict theories can help understand various aspects in education and the interactions among them in more deeply. While interactionist theory employs a micro level analysis of the interactions in the classroom such as behavior of students to understand education aspects, functionalism and conflict theories adopt a macro level analysis to understand the “big picture” in education.

Functionalism studies the function of education. Conflict theory exploits the forces affecting education and the inequalities. Both functional and conflict theory can help understand outside forces affecting education.


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Collins, R. (1971). Functional and conflict theories of educational stratification. American Sociological Review, 36(6), 1002-1019.

Hurn, C. (1993). The limits and possibilities of schooling. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Morrison, J., Eugene, W., Jerry, G. (1975). Compensatory education in the Community College: An Interactionist approach. Los Angeles: ERIC Clearinghouse.

Parsons, T. (1959). The school as a social system. Harvard Educational Review, 29, 297–318.

Sadovnik, A. (2007). Theory and research in the sociology of education. Web.

Sekuler, R. (1972). Through the maze brightly. In B.C. Mathis and W.C. MaGaghie (Eds.), Profile in college teaching: Models at Northwestern. Northwestern University: Center for Teaching Professions.

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