Sociological Perspectives on Higher Education Research

  • Ilkka KauppinenEmail author
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The sociological perspective is a perspective on human life, social interaction between individuals and groups, how these are conditioned by social structures or a society as a whole, and how social interaction in turn maintains or transforms these social conditions. Sociological perspectives may focus on people’s attitudes, beliefs, values, ways of feeling and acting in social space, but also on social institutions, relations and organizations, or race and ethnicity, social class, and gender.


Sociology is a general social science that focuses on broad questions such as the nature of social action and complex interplay between social structures and agency, causes and consequences of social struggles, preconditions of social order, and how societies evolve and change over time. There are several key sociological traditions and multiple theories that aim to provide fruitful insights in these topics. One way to categorize this multiplicity of perspectives is to say while some of them are focused on macroscale social phenomena, others tend to pay more attention on meso- and microscale or how to move beyond this categorization altogether.

Sociology also consists of numerous subfields and the sociology of higher education is one of them. The early decades of the sociology of higher education after the Second World War coincided with the rapid expansion of higher education institutions in many countries. In his seminal article, Burton Clark (1973) identified the key research topics (i.e., educational inequality at the tertiary level and the social psychological effects of college on students) and emerging topics (i.e., academic profession and higher education organizations, and by extension higher education systems as well as studies that compare these systems) that characterized the sociology of higher education in the early 1970s (especially in the USA).

Understandably, these topics were identified by Clark in a nation-state and interstate-centric manner. Since then, however, broad social, political, economic, and cultural conditions have significantly changed, and this has effected how the sociology of higher education has evolved and understood. These changes in the societal conditions of the sociology of higher education and their effects on the research topics as well as what type of theoretical approaches have been popular since Clark’s early contribution have been discussed at least in three edited volumes (Gumport 2007; David and Naidoo 2013; Côté and Furlong 2016). Other notable contributions include Deem (2004) and Stevens et al. (2008). These texts are recommendable to anyone interested in the sociology of higher education.

What Are Sociological Perspectives?

Overall, sociological perspectives are based on theoretical and methodological reflections and related philosophical (e.g., ontological and epistemological) commitments. Being aware of these is an important precondition of critically working out how to conceptualize and explore higher education as a research area and what types of research questions are relevant for different sociological perspectives. For example, whether one thinks that individuals, social relations, or organizations are the key constitutive elements of societies has profound implications for what types of methodologies and theories are best suited to guide one’s research. It also is worthwhile to notice that sociology is not simply interested in describing or categorizing some particular empirical phenomenon but also in providing insights on the conditions of possibility for these phenomena to exist. For example, how is trust possible between competing scholars in the academic field? Or what kinds of institutional conditions facilitate academic freedom?

One highly important insight that sociology provides is an understanding that social scientists are a part of their research objects. This is obviously very relevant in the case of higher education research. One of the challenges here is a capability to generate such approaches that would help to translate something very familiar, taken for granted, and perhaps even trivial-looking (e.g., university or academic work) into something intriguing and unfamiliar in order to be able to produce fruitful research results that go beyond, for example, immediate managerial concerns.

A sign of any balanced perspective is that it keeps things in perspective, i.e., it is not blind to the relational and historical context in which some particular research object or area exists and evolves. In terms of sociological perspectives, this means that a research area such as higher education is perceived, approached, and explored in relation to other social fields, institutions, or systems that are constitutive elements of society. Another key characteristic of sociological perspectives is that actors are perceived in relation to social structures that both enable and restrict their possibilities for action. Actors are, in turn, seen to either reproduce or transform these existing social structures. For example, Roy Bhaskar and Anthony Giddens have provided influential accounts regarding the dynamics between social structures and action.

It is also common for sociological perspectives to make historical comparisons or to explore how something has evolved over time in order to tease out what is specific in the contemporary situation and how or why, for example, the functions of universities have changed since the early twentieth century. Sociologically informed comparative higher education studies may focus, for instance, on why organizational characteristics of universities differ between different countries or whether there is a process of convergence between universities originating from different parts of the globe. This type of research may draw on the sociology of organizations, sociological institutionalism, political economy, and globalization theories. More concretely, higher education scholars have developed different theoretical frameworks to explore these questions (e.g., academic capitalism, entrepreneurial university, and triple helix model).

Any, including sociological, perspectives may be distorted as is the case if something is not viewed in its correct size, its importance is neglected or overemphasized, or its relation to some other objects is misunderstood. Matters are further complicated if it is accepted that in order to have a plausible perspective on something, we need to acknowledge there is more to that something (e.g. higher education) than what meets the eye. It is a task of sociological theories and methods to reveal that what we cannot otherwise perceive (e.g., causes of stratification among universities).

Adopting sociological approach in a comprehensive manner often implies acknowledgment that one needs to stay sensitive to or at least to be aware of many levels of analysis: macro-dynamics (e.g., changing boundaries between higher education, states, and economy within and across nation-state borders), local realities (e.g., how universities are governed and designed as complex organizations that compete with each other nationally, regionally, and globally), and how these social processes affect actors in the academic field (e.g., how students acquire different forms of capital or how academics’ self-identities are changing due to structural transformations). This implies that sociological study of higher education benefits from a variety of sociological theories or group of theories such as global capitalism school, sociological institutionalism, sociology of work, organizational sociology, economic sociology, sociology of emotions, and cultural sociology, just to name a few.

Historically important sociological perspectives that are available for higher education scholars can be categorized as structuralism, functionalism, conflict theories, and symbolic interactionism. These perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive though there are such significant differences between them that make the categorization analytically plausible.

Structuralism, strongly influenced by Émile Durkheim, emphasizes that different elements of society are connected and form an overall structure that characterizes society. It is common for various structuralist approaches to argue that it is not the characteristics of any particular entity that matters most, but rather, what characterizes the relations between different entities. In structuralism universities are often viewed as complex organizations embedded in broader social relations that effect, for example, planning and decision making. While Louis Althusser is one of the scholars that has influenced structuralist research on higher education especially in terms of viewing it as an ideological state apparatus, Michel Foucault is probably the key scholar who has influenced post-structuralist approaches in higher education research through concepts such as discourse and disciplinary power. Post-structuralists criticize structuralism for being too deterministic and emphasize the importance of language as a constitutive feature of the social world. Structuralism also has importantly paved way to various forms of sociological relationalism which tend to pay more attention to agency than what traditional forms of structuralism tended to do.

Functionalism in turn draws attention to different functions that given research objects serve in a wider social environment. One may be interested in, for instance, what are the functions of higher education in the contemporary society or how and why their functions have changed over time. One possible answer is that universities have become increasingly important functional elements of national or regional innovation systems. Functionalist approaches pay more attention, than other sociological perspectives, to social stability and how different parts of society contribute to the social order and maintenance of society. For example, universities’ role as functional elements of innovation system is supposed to contribute to the competitiveness of nation-states in the global economy. Since the time of Talcott Parsons, functionalism has received extensive criticism for its alleged conservatism and tendency for grand theorizing. Among the critics have been post-structuralists, postmodernists, feminists, and conflict theorists. However, functionalist approaches may pay attention also to latent or unintended functions that some social institution may serve. For example, one may argue that the unintended function of higher education is to maintain and reproduce social inequalities.

The roots of conflict theories are in Max Weber’s sociology and especially in Karl Marx’s theory of class conflict between capitalists and workers. Conflict theories are not concerned of the functional roles that social structures and institutions have within a broader society, but rather, how and why different groups of people struggle over some valued resources in a given time and space. Another key point of interest is inequalities between different actors, for example, in terms of status. From the perspective of these heterogeneous theories, higher education is seen as a field of struggle over, for instance, different forms of capital. Also, these theories emphasize that the way higher education organizations and systems are organized can facilitate such processes as marginalization, stratification, and exclusion; and these in turn may trigger conflicts between different social groups based on social class, ethnicity, gender, and/or religion. Many conflict theories also provide lenses to study how external forces influence the development of the academic field. Bourdieu’s sociology is currently one of the most popular conflict theories in the field of higher education.

Symbolic interactionism, which was significantly developed by George Herbert Mead, offers perspectives on how people within higher education are involved in meaning making and reproducing or transforming existing values, norms, beliefs, and variety of practices. Symbolic interactionism provides lenses to study, for instance, teaching-learning interactions, and negotiates identities among academic workers. Symbolic interactionism reminds that universities and the academic field do not exist independently of interacting persons and related interactive processes. Symbolic interactionists emphasize actors’ capacity to interpret their institutional surroundings and the social world in general. Finally, symbolic interactionism is potentially useful resource for those higher education researchers that are interested in developing grounded theory.

These four sociological perspectives provide only a crude categorization of all the theoretical resources that are available for higher education scholars. Hidden within this categorization, there are a number of subfields such as postcolonial, economic, and feminist sociology. These subfields are increasingly important resources in an era that is characterized by global expansion of higher education, structural power of political economy and markets to affect organizational and systemic reforms, and complex intersecting systems of inequalities. Moreover, multiplicity of theoretical perspectives and related diversity of research designs implies methodological pluralism. Indeed, one may argue that in order to keep this multiplicity alive and nurture it, both qualitative and quantitative methods are needed. One challenge is to cultivate such methodological approaches that allow space to both of these methods while critically acknowledging the potentialities and limitations involved in each of them.

Sociological Imagination

Sociologists’ ongoing interest in the relation between social structures and agency points toward one of the distinctive features of sociology, namely, sociological imagination. In a generic sense, sociological imagination can be understood as a creative capacity and sensitivity to find, identify, and explore connections between societal conditions, social change, and people’s lives. In this generic sense, sociological imagination refers to a capacity to put things in perspective, in their wider relational and historical context. In a more specific sense, sociological imagination is – according to C.W. Mills’ (1959, 8) conceptualization – “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society,” i.e., the capacity to see that personal challenges or troubles, persons’ biographies, and life trajectories are related to broader social structures and historical processes.

Whether sociological imagination is understood generically or more specifically in Mills’ sense, understanding of macro-, meso-, and microlevels as well as how they are related, and the capacity to shift between different perspectives, is needed to practice sociological imagination. For example, we can say that the current restructuring of Western higher education – as an example of a broader neoliberal turn or the emergence of New Public Management in societies – has increased (inter)personal insecurities among academics who are facing precarization of academic work. Also the question of how academics internalize the new roles and identities that are promoted as necessary by-products of structural changes is such a research topic that benefits immensely from sociological imagination. For example, it is pointed out in a powerful and thought-provoking way that when we get involved in academic capitalism, we are in many cases “changing ourselves into something we are not” (Rhoades and Slaughter 2004, 55). Sociological imagination reminds us that individuals are not isolated, self-sufficient masters of their own life, though of course only they make their histories – but not under the circumstances of their own choice, as already Marx pointed out.

In broader theoretical terms, sociological imagination was to Mills about navigating between abstracted empiricism and grand theory, i.e., avoiding theoretically blind research conducted to serve the corporate world and formal theory that has lost touch with empirical realities. In contrast to these, sociological imagination is about developing sociological theory in tandem with empirical research. Given that, for instance, Bourdieu’s sociological theory is very popular among higher education scholars, it is not a surprise that many higher education scholars are disposed to practice sociological imagination – even if only implicitly. Looking back it is easy to see that also Clark practiced sociological imagination given his wide range of research interests.

In the contemporary era, one pressing challenge is to cultivate such sociological imagination that is capable of relating academics’ personal experiences and biographies with transnational or even global structures and processes. Globalization, subject to unforeseen disruptions, implies that sociological imagination requires such lenses that provide insights into globalizing tendencies and trends without becoming blind to national and local scales and how these different scales influence actors’ biographies, life trajectories, and problems they face at the academic field. Some intriguing themes in this respect include how the stratified global field of higher education, or transnational research areas such as the European Research Area, affects individuals’ career prospects in certain disciplines or what new challenges they trigger for higher education students and how they negotiate and attempt to manage these challenges under the conditions that are characterized by the blurring of boundaries between both organizations and nation-states. Sociological imagination that is capable of acknowledging how multi-scalar social, economic, cultural, and political conditions and forces influence individual actors in the field of higher education is one of the key resources that sociology has to offer for the contemporary higher education research.

Sociological Perspectives Are Not Fixed

However, there are many unanswered underlying tensions that characterize the production of sociological knowledge in academia. Being aware of them is important for critical self-understanding of the sociology of higher education. These issues are relevant also for many other disciplines.

The first issue is that the production of academic knowledge takes place globally, but theories and concepts originate very unevenly from the Global North (Connell 2007). The contemporary geopolitics of sociological knowledge disfavors knowledge produced in postcolonial peripheries by relying on conceptualizations and theories that are adopted from Western academia. Would European and North American higher education scholars have more to learn, for example, from Chinese intellectual traditions or critical social studies produced in South America?

The second ongoing issue is the role of critical and problem-solving theories (Cox 1981) in studying higher education. In crude terms, problem-solving theory focuses on how to increase the efficiency, productivity, and smooth operation of existing order and its constituent elements (such as universities), while critical theory focuses on questions such as social justice since it does not take the existing order, and how it has evolved, as natural and inevitable. Are current institutional arrangements and funding mechanisms capable of providing opportunities for both types of theories and their adaptation in studying higher education?

The third issue is theorizing and theory development (Swedberg 2016) that is arguably one of the key characteristics of any academic discipline. For example, sociological institutionalism and related organizational theories have been used extensively to study organizational change and stability, and policy formation processes in higher education, but how significantly has this led to conceptual elaboration or expanding existing theories? Should there be more emphasis on theorizing and theory development or elaborating existing sociological theories than what is currently the case? There are not any easy answers since in sociology the term “theory” has multiple meanings (see Abend 2008), and same tends to apply also to theorizing and theory development.

The fourth issue is the relation between disciplinary parochialism/imperialism and post-disciplinary studies (Sayer 2000). The key question here is how we should view the relation between sociology and other disciplines when studying higher education as a research area, which boundaries are not dictated by any particular academic discipline. Which is more important – to identify with one’s discipline or one’s research area? One may argue that studying higher education requires such an approach which is capable of going beyond disciplinary boundaries if it would facilitate such concrete (i.e., many-sided) insights that would increase the understanding of higher education more than if one would remain blind for the conceptual and methodological resources provided by other disciplines. However, have we disciplined ourselves so efficiently to “respect” disciplinary boundaries or is research and resource allocation organized in highly differentiated universities in such a manner that disciplinary parochialism/imperialism is simply an unavoidable (un)intended consequence?

Whatever one’s stance is in terms of these meta-issues, the key point here is that the sociology of higher education is not a predetermined and fixed subfield. Like any other institutional arrangement, it is open for negotiations and struggles regarding its identity, key issues, and different possibilities and how much there is, or should be, space for theoretical and methodological pluralism.


Due to a variety of sociological perspectives, they offer vast theoretical and methodological tools for the study of higher education regardless of one’s knowledge interests. Sociological perspectives provide tools to study how universities operate and change as organizations, how actors in the field of higher education interact or maintain and transform societal conditions, and how universities and the field of higher education as a whole relate to other social fields, institutions, and broader social structures within and across nation-state borders.

Simultaneously, it is clear that the importance of higher education as a research area has increased since the 1970s given, for example, the elevated economic and political importance of scientific knowledge in the growth strategies of corporations, nation-states, as well as regions as they aim to increase their competitiveness in global economy. This provides many opportunities to practice also sociological imagination that reminds us that social can be found even in the deepest and the most intimate part of an individual actor. Sociology has the potential to offer important insights into how the changing conditions of the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge affect academic work, learning, and overall, the ways how the relation between knowledge, universities, and societies evolves and what types of competencies are seen crucial outcomes of higher education in the face of contemporary global challenges.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Higher Education, University of GeorgiaAthensUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jussi Valimaa
    • 1
  • Terhi Nokkala
    • 2
  1. 1.Higher education studies team (HIEST)University ofJyväskyläJyväskyläFinland
  2. 2.Finnish Institute for Educational ResearchUniversity of JyväskyläJyväskylän yliopistoFinland