Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Sociological Approaches to Educational Administration

  • Scott Eacott
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_285


The generation and classification of data about society and social groups was pivotal in the establishment of public administration. Analysis of such data predates the establishment of any academic departments and was arguably central to early Western philosophy. It is the analysis of the social world that is the focus of sociology. As a branch of social thought and analysis, sociology at its broadest is concerned with the study of human behavior and its origins, development, organization, and institutions. Significantly, sociology is not confined to any one particular set of theoretical resources or approach to data generation (e.g., qualitative or quantitative). It is a broad multi-paradigmatic discipline concerned with social behavior.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the moment of origin for sociology as an academic discipline, three scholars considered to be the founding architects of contemporary sociology are Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Durkheim held a strong belief in a science of the social world – comparable to the natural sciences – and it is this stream of sociology that was influential during the early phases of the North American-driven Theory Movement in educational administration in the mid-twentieth century. Marxist analysis of the social world, and the centrality of power, remains prominent – even if not always identified – in the critical stream of scholarship. Weber, who incidentally was writing at around the same time as Frederick Winslow Taylor – arguably the father of contemporary management sciences – wrote a highly influential, but significantly misunderstood, account of the role of the economy, administration, and society and included a discussion of charismatic leadership.

Sociology however is not a homogenous discipline. There are many differing orientations, or traditions, including, but not exclusively, structural-functionalist, political-conflict, constructivist, and critical humanist perspectives. Slater (1995) provides an overview of the ways in which these differing perspectives manifest in the educational administration literatures. The structural-functionalist perspective conceives of administration as a set of measurable behaviors or skills. With links to trait theory, this mode of inquiry frequently leads to lists of desirable actions or attributes. There is an underlying rational logic and research findings are designed to improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of organizations. With the contemporary policy agenda of professional standards or licensing requirements, this perspective is a major contributor to the literatures of the field. Political-conflict approaches are concerned with power relations (similar to Marxism) and in particular dominance-subordination. Bureaucratic approaches are linked to this perspective and researchers frequently argue that educational administration is a technology of control. Feminist accounts of educational administration seek to trouble, or problematize, the forms of domination and legitimation of power structures in existing education systems. The constructivists are less focused on the actual behaviors and more with the meaning ascribed to action. This shifts the attention from universal measurable behaviors to the particular meaning and intent of behaviors in context. Unlike other approaches (e.g., structural-functionalist), from a constructivist perspective, it is impossible to distinguish between cause and effect and nothing is value-free. The critical humanist is concerned with an explicit moral point of view and giving meaning to collective effort. With the expanding critique of neoliberalism and managerialism in educational administration, the critical humanist is focused less on getting people to do something and instead about getting them to do what is right. The distinctions between these perspectives are not always clear as such partitioning serves the classifiers’ purposes more so than scholars. In addition, it is symbolical of the way in which sociology is focused on an always in motion social activity.

Apart from having many different traditions, sociology also operates at two – although deeply connected – levels. The most commonly recognized is sociology of a field of practice, for example, sociology of education or educational administration. In this case, sociology provides a set of theoretical resources for thinking through and describing events in the social world. The “education” or “educational administration” is used to demarcate the object of analysis. It is often possible to recognize this form of scholarship through the appropriation of great thinkers (e.g., Bourdieu, Weber) to theorize educational administration. The difficulty here is that the received terms remain intact and the two domains of inquiry “sociology” and “educational administration” remain separate. A second approach is a sociology of knowledge production. In this sense, much like the sociology of science, focus is on the epistemological and ontological preliminaries of research. The leading proponent of this approach in educational administration (although frequently using the more contemporary title of educational leadership) is Gunter. For example, her latest book, An Intellectual History of School Leadership Practice and Research Gunter (2016), classifies research around traditions, purposes, domains, contexts, and networks to provide those working in educational administration and leadership with an analytical framework for understanding knowledge production.

Sociology and Educational Administration

The importance, or significance, of sociological approaches for educational administration is a well-rehearsed argument. As Bates (1980) argued, “the processes through which learning is organized in society are of central importance in both the production of knowledge, the maintenance of culture, and the reproduction of social structure” (p. 1). However, a coming together of sociology and educational administration is not easily achieved. Educational administration sits at the intersection of well-developed traditions of sociology of education and the sociology of organizations (often referred to as organizational studies), among others. This poses a problem as sociology, including the sociology of education, has continued on with little explicit reference to educational administration (see Tipton 1977).

In the pursuit of validity within the academy, educational administration sought to establish boundaries around itself as an academic discipline. In doing so, any disciplinary knowledge from beyond the constructed boundaries of educational administration was excluded. Primacy was given to understanding individuals within organizations and their interactions with the structural arrangements of institutions and systems. What sociology offered educational administration was an opening up beyond the individualistic and structural accounts of organizations. As Clark (1965) argued:

sociology should be able to make a major contribution to the study of administration within formal structures. It is also notably a discipline whose sensitivity to emergent phenomena and informal patterns should aid greatly in extending the study of educational administration to the many influences on policy and practice that are located outside of formal structures. (p. 69)

The study of educational administration had been rooted in psychology and a psychological framework due to an interest in individuals and individual-level phenomena. The Hawthorne Studies and subsequent Human Relations Movement brought relationships between and within organizations to the fore. Introducing a more interactive approach to understanding organizations and those within them was generative of new questions for educational administration. If administration is a social activity, then it is only logical to have theories of educational administration embedded within broader theories of the social world. Enduring questions of the sociological project such as structure/agency, individualism/collectivism, and universal/particular became productive spaces for educational administration. The imperialism of disciplinary boundaries was less important than the development of theoretical and methodological resources for engaging with the increasingly complex nature of educational organizations and their administration.

Key Moves

In North America, but primarily the USA, the W.K. Kellogg-supported Cooperative Program in Educational Administration (CPEA) centers were important mechanisms for encouraging sociologists, psychologists, and others to conduct scholarship on educational administration during the mid-1900s. As a result, psychology and sociology were influential during the importation of science in the lead-up to the Theory Movement. The sociological influences in the Theory Movement were built upon an appropriation of Talcott Parson’s systems theory through Jacob Getzels’ (1952) A Psycho-Sociological Framework for the Study of Education Administration. From a sociological perspective, this approach reflects a very particular form of scholarship, one built upon logical empiricism as the way to do science. In mainstream discourses, this approach was – and continues to be – popular. The use of survey techniques and the construction/classification of social groups for analysis provided the basis of substantive applied research.

Australia and New Zealand are another well-recognized home for sociological-based scholarship in educational administration. While the USA has drawn from sociological approaches at large, the Australian and New Zealand contribution has been very much based in critical social theory. Primarily grounded in the work of scholars at Deakin University during the 1980s–1990s, in particular, Richard Bates’ critical theory of educational administration, Jill Blackmore’s contribution to feminist theorizing, and John Smyth’s critique of the self-managing school, Australia has long been recognized as a site of sociological-inspired scholarship.

The social sciences have long been thought of as a useful theoretical resource across the Commonwealth. This is arguably captured in Baron and Taylor’s (1969) classic text Educational Administration and the Social Sciences. This history is particularly important. In the USA, the brand of sociology that informed the Theory Movement and whose traces remain in major outlets (e.g., Educational Administration Quarterly) is very much concerned with objectivity in measurement and the exhibitionism of data (production and analysis). Of greatest import were the scientific method and the construction of rigorous and robust research.

In contrast, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand adopted a more open form of sociology. The interpretive was accepted at a greater scale and as a legitimate form of knowledge production. This goes part of the way to explaining why when Greenfield launched his attack on the apparent objectivity of the Theory Movement he received far greater support from Commonwealth-based scholars than he did from US-based ones. In the USA, early professors of educational administration and then the Theory Movement sought to establish an apolitical account that could acquire legitimacy within the broader academy. Objectivity, measurement, and causality (e.g., cause and effect) were imperative. In contrast, across the Commonwealth, there was a stronger recognition or conceptualization of education as a political activity. In England, for example, schooling had a long history of class warfare and scholarship could not easily overlook this sociocultural context. At scale, and contingent on temporality, the effects of colonialism/imperialism still linger across the Commonwealth, and sociopolitical accounts of educational administration are far more evident in both practice and scholarship. The closest equivalent in the USA is the attention to matters of race, particularly through the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) and general educational research associations such as the American Educational Research Association (AERA). However, this takes less of an explicit sociological approach and instead draws more broadly on a range of social sciences.

With the broad definition of sociology, the histories of different traditions and how they play out in different academic communities is easily overlooked. It highlights the need to understand how actions are located in contexts. In this sense, sociology works as both content and method. Sociological analysis calls for understanding the interplay between actions and contexts. An important distinction here centers on how this interplay is conceived.

There are two major schools of thought on the nature of relations in sociological analysis: substantialist and relational. The substantialist, sometimes referred to as entity-based in the broader leadership and management literatures, constructs research objects as discrete – even if interrelated – entities. This is core to systems thinking and the partitioning of organizations, context (or the environment), and the multitude of subsystems. Each entity becomes a variable in the research framework and then can be the focus of interventions (e.g., experimental or policy). Quantitative analysis of educational administration requires a substantialist lens. The mechanistic partitioning and measurement of external knowable entities is linked to structuralist-functionalist accounts. Relations in this approach are reduced to relationships between entities and can be measured for strength and directionality. Such approaches are often critiqued for being essentialist or deterministic as labels (e.g., gender, age, socioeconomic status) are effective static measures overlaid on context and assigned based on a preexisting criteria. In contrast, relational approaches are more fluid. Separate entities are not possible and understanding of particular events or actors can only be in relation to other actors and events. Variables in a substantial account are instead rethought as positions within a social space rather than essentialized. Questions shift from attempts to construct a list of desirable behaviors for effectiveness (with a particular version of cause and effect) to elaborated descriptions of unfolding social activity. The move is subtle, but the final product is considerably different. What this highlights is that sociological resources facilitate many different forms of scholarship and contribution.

Contemporary Developments

Gunter (2010) identified an emerging trend of using sociological approaches in educational administration and leadership research. While it is difficult to capture the scope of this scholarship, there are some recognizable areas that are leading contemporary developments in educational administration.

Unlike the sociology of education (and post-structuralist accounts of education), educational administration calls upon compensatory more than reproduction-based accounts of the role of the schooling. Primarily built on the work of Bourdieu and Passeron (1970[1990]), reproduction argues that education systems serve to sustain the existing social order. This position is common in parallel discussions in critical social theory. Not surprisingly, educational administration has an underlying generative principle that key actors in organizations and organizations at large can make a positive contribution to society. To that end, educational administration is conceived as a compensatory role, where, if enacted effectively, education can overcome any form of disadvantage that students may experience. The minimal engagement across approaches (reproduction and compensatory) is a limitation to contemporary dialogue and debate in educational administration and with other forms of education scholarship.

With an increasing use of sociological approaches in educational administration, there is also substantial evidence of appropriation of great thinkers. There are many great thinkers from sociology and more broadly social theory being imported into educational administration literatures. The likes of Bourdieu, Foucault, Arendt, Derrida, Lyotard, among others have texts dedicated to them and the application of their theories to educational administration. At least two difficulties exist with this trend: (i) the separation of sociology and educational administration remains as ideas and vocabularies are imported and overlaid leaving the received terms intact, and (ii) the theoretical resources are rarely mobilized at scale and instead cherry-picked to serve the researchers purpose. In the case of the former, the challenge is to move beyond the novelty and to provide insights not possible with existing theorizations. With the latter, the epistemic histories of concepts and their relations to a larger theory of practice are lost when applied in isolation.

Closely related to the above is the slippery use of sociological language in education administration. The current example is “capital.” As a concept, capital has a rich history in many disciplines but particularly sociology and economics. A rapidly expanding set of literatures in educational administration are using capital – and various adjectives to demarcate it. Social capital and cultural capital as theoretical resources have long histories in sociology, primarily through the work of Bourdieu. This has gone underdeveloped in educational administration. With a degree of presentism in contemporary work, epistemic equivalence is granted to these resources in ways which are theoretically indefensible.

Consistent with a relational turn in contemporary sociology and increased attention in broader leadership and management literatures, educational administration is paying more attention to relational approaches (Eacott 2015). This has taken many forms and could be a fad, but with the sustained attention in both sociology and leadership literatures, it is potentially a fruitful direction for scholarship in educational administration.

A final trend is the expansion of work on knowledge production in educational administration. With the exception of the Theory Movement and a few interventions (e.g., Greenfield’s subjectivism, Bates’ critical theory of educational administration, Evers and Lakomski’s natural coherentism), relatively little attention has been paid to understanding how knowledge is produced, disseminated, and sustained. The potential for providing insights into the relations between knowledge production and practice has arguably never been greater than during a period of increasing professional standards, certification, and licensing.


Sociology offers educational administration the means to theorize how it is perceived, understood, and enacted within the contexts of particular sociocultural, political, and economic conditions. It is a broad multi-paradigmatic discipline. To mobilize sociological resources in the scholarship of educational administration requires substantial reading in order to locate one’s work within broader discussions. This entry has provided a brief overview of the history of sociology and educational administration. Importantly it drew attention to some of the ways in which geography played in the adoption of sociology and the implications for scholarship. In addition, it identified some contemporary developments in the mobilization of sociology in educational administration that offer both challenges and new insights into how the field works. Importantly, it has been stressed that what sociology can provide are a set of theoretical resources for understanding the ways in which educational institutions go about their work, and because of the dynamic and contradictory nature of the social world, this is an ongoing and inexhaustible intellectual project.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of New South WalesSydneyAustralia