The Half-century of Research in the Sociology of Education: Changes in Educational Environments and the Developments in the Sociology of Education in Postwar Japan
- Aporia in the Sociology of Education
As noted above, the sociology of education has struggled to establish its own uniqueness in relation to pedagogy and sociology. It has attempted to establish itself with a peculiar status in a subfield of sociology because of the peculiarity of its objective: as an ontological pure science based on the methodological principle of sociology against value-oriented pedagogy and as a subfield of sociology that has a unique objective of education against sociology. “A path to policy science” and “a path to the sociology of educational systems” ensured its peculiar status against sociology in general. These two directions, however, include a certain type of danger. When they are extremely purified and normalized, the sociology of education faces aporia.
Because of the outburst of educational problems that demanded reconsideration of “functions of education,” the sociology of education in the 1970s was given sociological problems that were sufficient not to stress its uniqueness against sociology. These educational problems had structural sociological values. Educational sociologists did not have to make an effort to find sociological problems in educational phenomena because immediate educational problems had enough properties as sociological problems. By discussing them sociologically, describing their reality, examining their historical grounds and structural properties, and clarifying their social meanings, the sociology of education was able to improve its status as a subfield of sociology and confirm the difference from the value-oriented pedagogy. Moreover, these educational problems attracted interests from the public and the mass media. By discussing these problems sociologically, it successfully acquired its identity and confidence. It was able to enhance its evaluation and ensure a certain position in the academic world.
While these educational problems gathered attention from the public and the mass media and were needed to be dealt with both in the policy-level and the classroom, most of them were aporia rooted in structural discrepancies. For instance, while educational credentialism is meritocratic and democratic compared to traditional ascription, it is ascriptive and discriminatory in the sense it can become an ascribed status. In the same way, the entrance exam system has confrontations: (1) between the meritocratic system and the universal system regarding who ought to be admitted or (2) between formalism that places emphasis on the principle of preciseness and equity and anti-formalism that places much value to personality, aptitude, and latent ability regarding how applicants ought to be selected. In a similar way, achievement gaps, ideals of education, and freedom of education cause complex aporia situations in the case of inequalities between schools or those between public and private sectors. Policy variables that can be manipulated may be available at individual institutions but severely limited at macro political levels.
These aporia situations make a researcher’s stance difficult. If a situation includes aporia, policy science studies must retreat from the examination of policies themselves and become one of the following: (1) sticking to discuss the aporia situations and their background structures, (2) reinforcing a theoretical orientation and withdrawing into the world of intellectual/academic discourse, or (3) shifting their focus to research areas with a lot of manipulable policy variables. Until the 1970s, policy science studies in the sociology of education have developed mainly in the direction of (3) reflecting educational expansions and developments. As aporia situations worsened, however, more and more studies sought the directions of (2) and (3), which seems to be an increasing trend in the 1980s.
If the aporia in policy science studies lie in educational environments or school systems as subjects of research, the source of aporia in the sociology of education as the “sociology of educational systems” rather lie in paradigms (the way to formulate questions and answers) and the senses of reality behind them. As noted in the previous section, the uniqueness of the sociology of education as a subfield of sociology lies in its subject of study: education. “Education” as a reflexive/self-organizing practice, which is located at the core of the reproduction of culture and society, is exactly a “modern project” and an “unfinished project” in the language of Habermas (1982). The modernity has absorbed the humanity in the system and process of “patterns of mutual actions” (Habermas 1970). “Education” is placed at the core of them and the most collective and calculated practice. Furthermore, the reflexive/self-organizing practices are not only provided by the formal education but also penetrate into any fields, absorb individuals/organization/environments within the range of their associations, and reorganize patterns of actions and recognition.
As the genealogy of deconstructing this “modern education,” there exist studies such as criticisms against a schooled society represented by Illich, history of mentalities and archaeological social history represented by Ariès and Foucault, revisionists’ social history represented by Katz, or organizational studies based on the new institutionalism represented by Meyer. The first two of them finally began to be introduced and mentioned from the 1980s in Japan (Mori 1989; Katz 1989; Fujita 1991). The developments in these kinds of research is expected in Japan. It is also true, however, that there is an underlying trend that needs a caution.
As noted above, the deconstructionism sets out an anatomy of the “modern education,” i.e. the “modern project” as a research agenda. Furthermore, it tends to accomplish the agenda as a “description of nature.” Criticisms against a schooled society and historical studies of mentalities in particular have this tendency. It is needless to say that the “description of nature” is a necessary and valuable research. However, it involves a danger of undermining empirical studies in the sociology of education due to the following three points.
Firstly, the “description of nature” is not falsifiable. It tends to become universal discourse that excludes falsifiability. For example, the proposition that “the modern school emerged and developed as a device of discipline” becomes a universal proposition that nullify falsifiability as long as it is described in an interpretive way. There exists a danger of eroding the tradition of positivism and empiricism. In this sense, it is worthy of note that the “new institutionalism” represented by Meyer is oriented toward empirical research that is based on hypothesis testing.
Secondly, although studies that describe nature can highlight specific aspects of history and reality, it has a possibility to bias them by absolutizing the aspects. What should be distinguished here is the difference between the description of structures or processes and that of nature. As Foucault (1966) has pointed out, there is nor reason to believe an explanation is superior to a description as scientific conduct. A description already involves the segmentation (classification) and ordering (constitution) of reality. Therefore, the validity of segmentation and ordering can be examined by the objects of description as external standards in the case of descripting structures or processes. In other words, there is a chance of being falsified and revised. On the other hand, nature is inherent in an object and it cannot be described but in an interpretive way. In this case, a standard of validity is up to the sense of reality that a researcher attaches importance to. However, research is an arena to compete in not researcher’s sense of reality but the reality of closeness to research objects. In this sense, it is worthy of note that studies by Katz or Taillac are oriented to describe structures and processes.
Thirdly, analogical metaphors heavily used in the “description of nature” may be effective to address the nature of objects in an impressive way, but it generally does not provide new knowledge. For example, the metaphor of “prison” is effective to address the functional and semasiological nature such as the Panopticon system, disciplinary device, or oppression and control by power. If a metaphor is once established, however, it does not add new meanings or knowledge but become stereotype at most. Therefore, studies that describe nature are likely to be absolutized than those that describe structures/processes or analytical studies and have a potential to be an accomplice of circulating specific images. In this case, the meaning and role of research is called into question.
It is needless to say that the description of nature is meaningless, but it has a strong affinity to human sciences rather than social sciences. Anyhow, the uniqueness of the sociology of education lies in an orientation to “policy science” and its agenda of deconstructing “education as an institution.” At the same time, however, the tradition of empirical research should not be underestimated for it to survive as an empirical science. In addition, an agenda to elucidate (i.e. deconstruct/anatomize) the structures and functions of various research objects should be emphasized.