Divergent Institutions: Kinship and Education

The overt trends towards liberalization in modern American democracy have drawn the ire of religious groups and conservative politicians in recent years as our post-industrial society drifts further and further away from its agrarian traditions and into a more secularized bureaucracy. These groups are often vocal advocates of specific religious or cultural norms, but quite often they are just individuals who mourn the relentless marginalization of roles and responsibilities which used to belong to the institution of kinship. Though sociologist Jonathan Turner (2008) has suggested that “...historically, the more fundamental relationships among [sociological] institutions has... remained the same,” the evolution of the relationship between education and kinship, as social institutions go, could not have been more divergent. The difference between the roles of kinship in education, then and now, is pronounced. Turner's own work reinforces this assertion.

During the hunter-gatherer period, education was solidly within the domain of family and kinship. Turner agrees, “Kinship was the major structure within which education...occurred among hunter-gatherers.” (p. 116)This may seem to be a simple and uncontroversial statement to most, but clearly, the roots of change had already taken hold even in those times. The principle force operating against this relationship was differentiation. Speaking broadly of the emergence of education as a distinct institution over the coming sociological periods, Turner says “as differentiation occurs, education assumes many of the socialization functions of family, while kinship provides the financial and cultural resources necessary for the schools to operate.” (Ibid)

This process of differentiation persisted through the horticultural and agrarian periods, and can readily be observed in our industrial and post industrial societies. As a consequence, modern educational institutions bear little resemblance to their kinship-based ancestors. Furthermore, Kinship itself, though still providing resources and socializing commitments, plays almost no other role in the process of education. The distinction remains unclear through horticultural society, in which “most education was informal and, if formal, confined to instruction for scribes, warriors, religious practitioners, and craft apprentices.” (p. 138) Turner explains further that education isn't fully differentiated from kinship until the agrarian period, and that even then “...formal education was confined to elites, with only particular economic specialists in trades receiving formal instruction and with much of this instruction occurring primarily within the structures of kinship systems.” (Ibid)

During this agrarian period, Turner tells us that “...education was still a very recessive institution, operating primarily to train elites...” (p. 178) In this form, it was dominated by religious tradition, and almost universally so. But even then the pressures of change were at work. According to Turner, “...as states gained power, education became more secular.” (p. 174) Turner continues, explaining how in this process, once started, differentiation fueled the progress away from kinship and religion: “With the emergence of formal school structures with agrarianism...this system could be expanded.” (p. 178) Bringing the two points together, Turner points out the emerging opportunity for the state to expand its own role by promoting “new forms of secular commitment to the political system.” (Ibid)

With the rise of machines and the consumerism and complexity which followed, the power of education as a fully differentiated institution can be clearly seen. Again, Turner explains- “with advanced industrialism and post-industrialism, values for reproduction and regulation push for expansion of education as an institutional system...Currently, industrializing societies seek to develop an educational system for economic reasons.” (p. 244) At this point, education is no longer perceived by society as a storage center for superstition and old farming techniques. Education now provides a means to escape the constraints of agrarianism and kinship and pursue a seemingly limitless range of occupational and cultural trajectories.

Indeed, education may be the principal agent of the profound social changes associated with industrialism. But industrialism has also changed the institution of education as well. Specifically, the new features which Turner describes include “bureaucratization,” “massification,” “equalization,” “evaluating, sorting, and tracking,” “credentialism,” “centralization,” “professionalization,” and “privatization.” (p. 244-252)In turn, each of these changes has resulted in new norms and, at times, even contradictions. While bureaucratization resulted from state efforts aimed at “ increasing...political loyalty (and) economic development,” massification led to over-educated populations which the economy could not always absorb, but who possessed “enhanced critical thinking” which could “be directed at the polity.” (p. 244-246) Speaking of credentialism, Turner observes that “...as educational credentials become tickets to entrance into occupational and status groups, those without those tickets become resentful.” (p. 246) Moreover, the author elaborates,” higher cultural classes have the cultural capital and financial resources to sponsor their children in school.” (p. 248) So the features of equalization and credentialism also tend to work at cross purposes.

Lastly, concerning the subject of power itself, both political and social, education becomes an arena of ideological conflict. Turner discusses the methods by which the state can dictate educational policy, and the potential for teachers to disrupt that power: “Once financing passes to the national level, so will administrative control over the purse strings,” but “teachers can exert considerable political power.” (p. 252-252) The third tier in this struggle for control of the institution is privatization, in which the wealthy are able to subvert both teachers and government by financing their own schools. In a way, this third option may be perceived as an attempt to regain some of the old kinship-based influence which had been surrendered over the years. Not surprisingly, this trend seems to be associated with the success of post-industrialism. Turner explains that “in most countries, universities are almost exclusively public... Only in the United States does a large private sector of education exist.” (p. 252) One may reasonably predict that as other nations reach the level of post-industrialism now enjoyed by Americans, they too will see a rise in privatization as the means finally emerge to recapture the family's long lost dominion.

With education coming completely unmoored from its kinship roots, its central purpose comes into question. Sociologists Ramirez and Meyer (1980) examine what this purpose is and should be. While discussing the expansion of mass education, they note that “current ideas trace the modern educational system to the transformation of the economic system.” (p. 371) They say that “in modern economic thinking...education produces human capital in response to the requirements of the modern production system.” (p. 372) They ask “whether education functions more to generate cognitive training and skill or whether it mainly creates broader kinds of socialization- e.g. a compliant work force, or workers who accept the legitimacy of a system and their own role in it.” (Ibid) They dismiss this distinction, however, asserting that “the central economic hypothesis is that systems of mass education arise where there are expanding modern production systems or plans for such systems.” (Ibid) Later in their analysis, they dismiss this train of thought for a more sociological track, refuting the claim by observing that “mass schooling systems in Europe (and Japan) preceded industrialization...” and that studies “of several European countries fail to show positive relationships between industrialization and early enrollments.” (p. 373, 374) Instead, among other solutions, Ramirez and Meyer find a general association between mass education and the development of systems of collective authority: “...those [societies without states] with institutionalized patterns of collective authority tend to create some societal system of moral education.” (p. 375)

So has the institution which was once the crowning achievement of kinship systems now grown over into a broad method of merely subordinating kinship to polity? Or is it the other way around? Research conducted by Claudia Buchman and Emily Hannum at least partly suggests that outcomes are still largely linked to point of origin. In a catalog summary of “research on education and inequality in developing regions,” they discuss “the relationship between family background and educational outcomes.” (p. 77) Under this heading, they refer to research conducted by Heyneman and Loxley which find “significant evidence that family factors are important for educational outcomes in the developing world.” (p. 82) The authors list a number of factors which complicate such an examination, but in general they found an almost universal relationship between wealth and academic success: “All countries (except Kazakhstan) displayed a difference between rich and poor children's attainment...” (p. 83)

So to link the research conducted by the sociologists mentioned in the last two paragraphs with the overarching theme of this paper, it would appear that kinship does still play a major role in education, but that the objectives of families who send their children to school can range from, among poorer classes, creating opportunities for economic advancement and social mobility, to, among wealthier classes, restraining or promoting the influence of polity. The relative successes of either group will likely be related their economic standing, in most cases.

So perhaps the institutions of kinship and education are, have always been, and will always be inextricably connected. However, the relationship between the two has changed dramatically since the hunter-gatherer and horticultural days, when the two institutions remained undifferentiated. This change was merely evident during the agrarian period, but became pronounced during the transition to and through industrialism, in which education was dominated and expanded by polity seeking legitimization and economic growth. In the post industrial period, outcomes and objectives are inherently tied to wealth and status, with some evidence of regression (or at least, redefinition) among the elites who can afford to establish their own educational alternatives and thus increase the waning emphasis of family, religion, and kinship.


Buchmann, C. and Hannum, E., (2001). Education and Stratification in Developing Countries: A Review of Theories and Research. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 77-102.

Ramirez, F. and Meyer, John., (1980). Comparative Education: The Social Construction of the Modern World System. Annual Review of Sociology, 6, 369-399.

Turner, J., (2003). Human Institutions: A Theory of Societal Evolution. Lanham: Roman & Littlefield.