Education, Tolerance and the Sociological Imagination

The myriad of diverse groups from various social and cultural backgrounds within a multicultural society such as the U.K means it is essential to find ways to promote an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding to ensure community cohesion. It is commonly accepted that schools address this through the compulsory curriculum in lessons such as Citizenship and Personal Social Education (PSE); however, recent reports by Ofsted in England and Estyn in Wales note that many schools are lacking when it comes to teaching citizenship; for example, Estyn (2006 p.3) states that schools “are generally more confident about, and focus more on, sustainable development than global citizenship.” One way of addressing this issue is to encourage the sociological imagination of high school pupils by incorporating psychosocial aspects into the school curricula. This can facilitate “the capacity to shift from one perspective to another- from the political to the psychological” (Wright Mills 1959 p.7). The education system should, and often does, attempt to expand individuals’ critical thinking skills, and this can be improved and taken further by increasing pupils’ capacity to empathise in order to address key issues within diverse societies, particularly the need for toleration.

Western societies have changed considerably since C Wright Mills first introduced the concept of the sociological imagination, particularly with regard to communications technology and globalisation. Yet counter to the view that globalisation and the homogenisation of cultures would reduce ethnic tensions, Williams (1999 cited in Mendus p.94) describes how as traditional forms of identity and expression are becoming lost through the system of modernisation, nationalism is an attempt to instil a sense of community. Furthermore, Leighton (2012 p.64-65) warns that “The increasing uniformity, predictability, homogeneity and standardization of everyday life- the mcdonaldization of existence- is creating false differences to fill the vacuum left by real choice.” Such ‘false differences’ can be seen dangerously manifesting themselves in the form of the BNP, and more recently, the English Defence League. As the sociological imagination essentially includes an attempt to walk in the shoes of others, in addition to recognising historical social factors and how we form our attitudes and feelings towards others, it may provide a useful focal point in the attempt to combat extremist views from all angles of the political spectrum.

One way of encouraging empathising with others, or at least creating an understanding of the dangers of the far right and other extremist groups, is to teach about poignant empirical experiments carried out at crucial points in history. By studying this type of research, it should be possible to create an all round awareness of the intricacies of human interaction and attitudes towards race and ethnicity. My recommendation for the curriculum in this area is to focus on basic psychological knowledge intertwined into the field of sociology, thereby placing a greater emphasis on socio-psychological outcomes. One example of the research that may be included is the renowned experiment conducted by Milgram who aimed to find out whether “Germans are different” with reference to the holocaust.  The electric shock punishments administered by the participants during the course of the study revealed that no, in fact, Germans are not different, and many people are capable of blindly following those in authority. The experiment goes some way towards explaining the occurrence of genocide and can be related to more recent events such as Bosnia or the situation in Rwanda; whilst on another level, it may encourage a greater sense of personal awareness.

Furthermore, there is a wide range of socio-psychological studies which focus on issues such as in-groups and out-groups, and how membership of a particular group can cause unreasonable attitudes and responses towards others. Also, learning about the effects of labelling in relation to education and crime, and the impact of the media, with an emphasis on the current and past situation of ethnic minorities, should aid pupils in gaining a better understanding of societal developments. The point here is not to carry out a deep critical study of such research, but to take the basic lessons that have been learnt from the research and incorporate them into the compulsory school curriculum- not just for pupils studying specific subjects, but across the board. This may make it possible for students to imagine themselves in certain situations, including evaluating their perceived responses.

Ignatieff (1999 p.83) explains how the individuality of the person within a group that is despised is usually completely overlooked, with only membership of the group taken into consideration. The new forms of social media provide a vehicle for the promotion of such views, with succinct comments and eye catching images having a major impact. A poignant example of this is the content of the English Defence League’s Facebook page, which also provided an interesting response to a question posed on the page following the horrific murder of soldier Lee Rigby. The question concerned whether one of the EDL’s aims is to encourage its members to attack Muslim women in the street. The reply was that only a minority of its members would do such a thing, to which the reply was “the same as in the Muslim community then”; following which the whole post was promptly removed by the administrators. Clearly then, sweeping generalisations about any group are offensive as well as dangerous, therefore the “essential task in teaching ‘toleration’ is to help people see themselves as individuals, and then to see others as such” (Ignatieff 1999 p.83); this may go some way towards mitigating the negative aspects of social media and the use of sound bites of information.

Tolerance should be a two way process, and pupils from minority groups would of course also be required to learn the curriculum, which is essential because toleration is not purely an issue for the majority culture. As Williams (1999 cited in Mendus p.75) points out, “the people that the liberal is particularly required to tolerate are unlikely to share the liberal’s view of the good of autonomy, which is the basis of his toleration.” Thus, perhaps an important aspect here is that an element of reciprocity may be developed, as feeling respected is likely to generate reciprocal respect, creating a mutually beneficial situation.

Another key factor in implementing a curriculum such as this, which is based on promoting certain values whilst suppressing others, is whether it is morally acceptable to do so- diversity in society suggests it is not only moral but essential.

Here in the U.K, as in most other Western countries, society has been facing continuing change in its demographic make up for centuries, and there is no going back from this. For society to maintain stability and flourish, it is of paramount importance that communities are able to live and work side by side cohesively.  The alternative to this is the situation that manifests itself from time to time, particularly in northern mill towns, with people from one side of the cultural divide pitted against those from the other side. Therefore it is entirely reasonable to educate to limit such situations, which are often infectious, and their resultant harm. Moreover, Guttmann (1999 p.14) explains how “A democratic theory of education focuses on what might be called ‘conscious social reproduction’- the ways in which citizens are or should be empowered to influence the education that in turn shapes the political values, attitudes, and modes of behaviour of future citizens.” Developing the sociological imagination allows for this ‘conscious social reproduction’ and can assist in developing critical thinking skills which may be put to use throughout life, whether during further study or while making decisions in the workplace or social settings- not only during compulsory schooling.

Wendy Booth is a Doctoral Researcher in the Social Ethics Research Group, University of South Wales, Newport


Estyn (2006) Establishing a position statement for Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship in Wales Crown Copyright

Gutmann, A. (1999) Democratic Education Princeton University Press Princeton New Jersey

Ignatieff, M. (1999) in Mendus, S. The Politics of Toleration in Modern Life Nationalisn and Toleration P.77-106

Leighton (2012) Teaching Citizenship Education A Radical Approach Continuum International Publishing Group London

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination Harmondsworth Penguin

Ofsted (2010) Citizenship established? Citizenship in schools 2006/09 Crown copyright

Williams, B. (1999) in Mendus, S. The Politics of Toleration in Modern Life Tolerating the intolerable P.65-76

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