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Education as a social activity or a social practice can be investigated in three perspectives: in respect to

  • the intention of the educators,
  • the function education has for society
  • the effects education has on individual dispositions and abilities

With regards to the last mentioned perspective or dimension, a broader and a more narrow meaning of education can be distinguished. In its broadest sense (including the meaning of the terms Bildung, cultivation) education is any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character or physical ability of an individual. In a more narrow sense, education might be associated with specific learning domains or the acquisition of competencies.

With regards to the function education has for maintaining society it is defined as the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another. In this sense, education is a social activity, first, in which different kinds of people qualified or not, are involved (parents, teachers, youth workers, peers for examples), second, that can be institutionalized or not (formal or not) and, third, that is based on process of learning and methods.

Regarding the debate on intentions and aims in education, one finds from classical Greek philosophers to modern educationalist, and now, under the umbrella of various academic fields, many theories mainly on the purpose of education and also on school organisation, contents and methods.

Education in its modern form is closely linked to the construction of nation states as "imagined communities" and to individualism. Its meaning in shaping individual life courses has consistently increased over the past two centuries. Indicative of the currently great attention attributed to it are the terms "knowledge society", "human capital" and "human resource development". Education plays a central role in the reshaping of life course regimes. The respective public, political and social scientific debates and theories insist on the importance of education for international competition, for overall well being, health and economic success. Attention is also played to its role structuring society and individual and collective social integration. In addition, education’s role for processes of social inclusion and exclusion are also considered. A main perspective in educational theories today is constructivist or related to it, emphasizing individual capacities of self-development. Education was and still is a contended social practice with the aims, content and means of education remaining controversial.

Education is also considered as a right. In several European and international convention or declaration, it has been established as a basic human right. For example, the article 28 of the Convention of the Rights of Child, adopted in 1989, precise that "States Parties recognize the right of the child to education" and should promote equal opportunities. The implementation of this right supposed a system of formal education with different levels (primary to tertiary), programs, qualified people (not only teachers), methods, both organised by state through public policies. As this example illustrates, education is increasingly inter- and transnationalized with International Organizations as key actors in shaping policies and practices.


Dale, Roger and Robertson, Susan (eds.) (2009) Globalisation and Europeanisation in Education. Oxford: Symposium Books.

Durkheim, Émile (1938) Education et Sociologie. Paris: PUF.

Durkheim, Émile (1938) L’évolution pédagogique en France. Paris : PUF.

Mialaret, G. (ed.), Vocabulaire de l’éducation. Education et sciences de l’éducation. Paris: PUF.

Popkewitz, Thomas (2000) Educational Knowledge. Changing relationships between the states, civil society and the educational community. Albany, NY: SUNY.

(Marcelo Parreira, Karin Amos & Valerie Becquet)