Study Notes

Durkheim on Education

AQA, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 25 Nov 2019

In this study note we explore Durkheim's perspective on education.

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Durkheim argues the education system provides what he terms secondary socialisation as opposed to the primary socialisation which is delivered by the family. While the family passes on particular norms and values, secondary socialisation passes on universal norms and values that are shared by broader society. This helps individuals to become fully-functional, normal members of society and this in term helps society because people know how to behave.

The term norms refers to behaviour and attitudes which are considered normal, while values are those things that people consider important to them. Functionalists believe that all members of society are socialised into these norms and values, first through the family and later through institutions such as education, the media and religion. It is in this secondary socialisation that people learn universalistic values rather than just those values particular to their own family or community.

Durkheim thought education increasingly had to perform this role in a modern industrial society. In agrarian societies, it was important to have a shared set of norms and values as a community. This fostered solidarity, but it was what Durkheim termed mechanical solidarity: people had face-to-face contact with each other and had very little contact – socially or economically – with people in other parts of the country or the world. In this sort of society, the family can provide most of the socialisation. This is one reason why education is perceived as a key function of the family. However, in a more complex, large-scale society (one based on organic solidarity rather than mechanical solidarity) it is necessary to learn the shared values of broader society. For this reason, a more organised education system is required.

Furthermore, the nature of an industrial society, means people have to learn certain skills in order to function in that society and to perform specific economic roles. There are common pieces of knowledge that everyone should have, but there are also specific competencies that different people require in order to play their part in a complex industrial society based on a division of labour.

For Durkheim, the education system performs the secondary socialisation role by:

  • Instilling social solidarity. By learning about history, children learn to see themselves as part of a bigger picture and people should work together for common goals. Children also learn how to get on with people from different backgrounds and with different experiences.
  • Teaching social rules and how to abide by them. Schools ensure everyone follows a particular set of rules and have to behave in the same way, regardless of relationships and friendships. Learning to interact within a set of rules is learning how to function in society. This is important because it limits deviance: children learn about punishment and with that learn self-discipline.
  • Teaching specialist skills. Durkheim noted how people were going to work in mass production, performing quite a specialist function using specialist skills. Where in agrarian society people might have learned a particular job or craft from a parent, modern jobs required technical knowledge and also industrial societies saw industrial change, so the nature of jobs changed from generation to generation. Children had to learn skills and principles that would facilitate them working on an assembly line. This does suggest that as well as learning shared values in school, children would not necessarily all get the same education, but instead might learn different things depending on their likely future roles.

Evaluating Durkheim on education

  • Marxists question where these shared values come from and whose interests they serve. They don’t accept that there are a set of neutral norms and values that are best for everyone in society. Instead, as we shall see the in the next section, they argue that the powerful in society use education to spread their ideology.
  • There are a number of ways in which Durkheim’s ideas about education could now be considered outdated. First, it imagines a society where a value consensus is possible and desirable. Postmodernists would argue that contemporary society is diverse and multicultural, and schools do not produce a shared set of norms and values for the whole of society and nor should they. Furthermore, other sociologists point out that the contemporary economy is no longer based around assembly lines and therefore the education model that Durkheim describes may not suit the modern economy. Furthermore, some question whether schools ever really provided adequate training for work, noting that for most jobs the knowledge-based learned at school is of limited usefulness and much more specific skills are taught through in-work training.
  • Hargreaves (1982) has argued that the education system encourages individualism and competition rather than social solidarity and shared values. Educational norms discourage collaborative learning (instead seeing it as cheating or copying) and instead encourages individuals to try and beat each other: the opposite of social solidarity.


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