"Education" can be grouped into formal education, informal education and nonformal education. Formal education can be defined as secondary socialisation carried out in institutions called "schools" in a relatively standardised way, i.e., following a fixed curriculum.

Informal education is learning from family, friends and colleagues, learning from the mass media and on-the-job training or OJT. Nonformal education is education outside of school, e.g., adult literacy programmes and agricultural extension programmes.

"Economic development" can be defined as an increase in the GNP per capita (Gross National Product per capita) and also as a change in the structure of the economy from agricultural to an industrial and service economy.

There are 4 possible relationships between education and economic development:

(1) Education having a positive effect on economic development
(2) Education having a negative effect on economic development
(3) Economic development having a positive effect on education
(4) Economic development having a negative effect on education

According to Human Capital theory, investment in education will increase "human capital". This is good because educated workers are more productive workers. High investment in education will lead to higher rates of economic growth.

Furthermore, money spent on R & D (research and development) in universities and research institutes will also lead to technological progress and economic development.

According to Modernisation Theory, education will change the traditional values and attitudes of the people which hinder economic development. Modern values and attitudes will lead to modern behaviour and economic development.

Structural-functionalists such as Davis and Moore believe that the education system can be used to select the most talented people to fill the most important jobs in the society. This system of meritocracy will contribute to economic development. Structural functionalists also believe that the education system can be used to promote common values and social solidarity. The resulting social stability will encourage more foreigners to invest in the local economy.

According to critics such as Ronald Dore, education spending can affect economic development in a negative manner. Dore talked about the "Diploma Disease" or credentialism, i.e., many students are not interested in learning but attend school just to earn more and more credentials and paper qualifications. This is a waste of economic resources and can lead to the problem of unemployed university graduates.

Malaysia has a lot of its students studying overseas at the university level. This translates into a huge outflow of funds to pay for their overseas education. Hence, the Government is encouraging parents to get their children to study locally and the Government has also drastically reduced the number of students it is sponsoring overseas for higher education.

Another possibility is the "Brain Drain" problem. Some of the Malaysian students who study overseas may not return home to Malaysia after they graduate. Thus, Malaysia would lose some of its best brains to countries such as Australia, USA and so on.

How can economic development affect education in a positive manner? When a country gets richer as a result of economic development, the people will be able to afford to spend more on educating their children. Therefore the effective demand for education (especially private education) will increase. The Government can also afford to spend more on education, e.g., building more colleges and universities.

Furthermore, when the economy is growing rapidly, the demand for educated workers will increase. This will have a positive effect on the education sector.

Economic development may affect education negatively in the following way: In China, rapid economic development has resulted in many professors leaving the Government universities for the private sector because the pay in the private sector is much higher. This has affected the quality of teaching and research in the public universities in China. In Malaysia, more and more professors will leave the Government universities for the business sector or the private colleges unless the pay in the Government universities is raised to a more competitive level.


The term "stratification" comes from the word "strata" (as in strata or layers of rocks in the ground). Stratification means social inequality - inequality in terms of power, prestige, wealth, education, health etc. and how these are linked to social characteristics such as ethnicity, class, gender etc.

Examples: In the United States, black people are more likely to be poor than whites. Blacks are also more likely to found in less prestigious jobs and to be less well-educated and less-healthy than whites. In the rest of the world, minority groups (such as Aborigines in Australia, Orang Asli in Malaysia, Indians in Central America, Gypsies in Europe) are more likely to be poor, hold less prestigious jobs, to be politically weak and to be less well-educated and less healthy than the rest of the population.

The same situation applies to women as compared to men in the world today. To be born a woman is to experience lower "life chances" than men. There are relatively few women in positions of political or economic power. Women tend to be concentrated in jobs which are low in prestige and pay. Women are more likely to be less educated than men. The only advantage which women enjoy over men is the longer life expectancy of women (women tend to live longer than men, on the average).

Similarly, people born into the upper classes also enjoy better "life chances" than people born into the lower and working classes. Children from the upper classes are more likely to end up holding jobs which pay well and have high prestige as well as power. Upper class people are also more likely to enjoy better health and to have more education than people from the lower classes.

In sociology, various theories have been proposed to explain why inequality in "life chances" (the chances of achieving positions of power, prestige and wealth, the chances of being well educated and enjoying good health) are linked to social characteristics (such as ethnicity, class, gender etc).


The Marxists argue that inequality arises from ownership and non-ownership of the "means of production". The capitalist class owns the means of production (money, factories etc) and this gives them great advantages over the working class which does not own the means of production. The capitalist class owns wealth and this also allows them to monopolise positions of high prestige and power. They can also exert power by influencing politicians to act in the interests of the capitalist class.

The capitalist economic system works to the advantage of the capitalist class - the capitalist class reaps the benefits while the working class is exploited through the expropriation of surplus value. In other words, the minority (capitalist class) benefits at the expense of the majority (working class).

The capitalist class will act to maintain this system of inequality - through its "ideological hegemony" (brainwashing the working class into accepting ideas which serve the interests of the capitalists e.g. accepting an economic system which actually exploits them) promoted through the "ideological state apparatus". Examples of the "ideological state apparatus" include the school system and the mass media which promote capitalist values. If this fails, the capitalist class would resort to the use of the "repressive state apparatus" such as the legal system, the police and the army to repress working class uprisings.

Marx's model can be criticised for overemphasising wealth as the basis of inequality. Wealth, power and prestige do not necessarily go together. Also, in non-capitalist societies, there is inequality based on gender or ethnicity.


Weber criticised as well as expanded on Marx's theory of inequality. Weber's theory is said to be multidimensional while Marx's theory is unidimensional. This is because Weber said that inequality can arise from other factors also while Marx says that inequality arises solely from ownership and non-ownership of the means of production.

Weber talked about "class", "status" and "party (or power)". Weber's definition of class is different from that of Marx. Weber's definition of class refers to market position while Marx defined class as ownership or non-ownership of the means of production.

Weber has a four-class model of society, i.e., the propertied upper class, the white collar professional class, the petty bourgeois class and the unskilled manual class. The propertied upper class is positively privileged with respect to wealth, the white collar professional class is positively privileged with respect to marketable skills but the unskilled manual class is negatively privileged to both wealth and marketable skills. The petty bourgeois class is neither positively nor negatively privileged with respect to wealth or skills.

But Marx's model consists of two main classes - the capitalist class and the working class.

Weber also said that there is inequality in terms of prestige or social honour. Some people enjoy higher prestige than others and this can be independent of wealth. Example: some members of the aristocracy in Europe continue to enjoy high prestige although they may not have much wealth. According to Weber, power, prestige and wealth do not necessarily go together (while Marx said that they all go together). For example, people who work as police and immigration officers may have power although their jobs often do not pay well and are not very prestigious.

Weber defined "party" as a group of people organised to seek power. Weber also talked about "power" (the ability to get things done your way in spite of resistance from others) and "authority" (power recognised as being legitmate by subordinates). Powerful people may not necessarily enjoy high prestige, e.g., criminal gang bosses.

According to Weber, in agrarian society, prestige is the most important in terms of determination of social stratification. In capitalist society, class becomes more important. However, with the growth of the bureaucratic state, the significance of power based on position in the bureaucracy would increase.

The major criticism of Weber's model is that it is possible to increase the number of classes to more than four. For example, what about people who enjoy wealth and also possess skills such as surgeons and corporate lawyers? Also, how would one classify wives who hold low level jobs such as secretarial jobs but who are married to skilled professional husbands?


Marxists believe that inequality arises from unequal ownership of the means of production - the capitalist class owns the means of production and uses this to exploit the working class which has only its labour power to sell in order to survive. Poverty and inequality is due to capitalism and the capitalist class system more than to individual deficiencies. Ownership of wealth also gives rise to prestige and power. The capitalist class is the dominant class and very often, the state acts to further the interests of this class. Marx believed that in a communist society where private property is abolished, inequality would be ended.

In contrast, the structural-functionalists believe that inequality is unavoidable and universal (found in all societies). Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore even argued that it is functional in their controversial Davis-Moore hypothesis. The Davis-Moore hypothesis argued that inequality is functional because of the following reasons:

In all societies, some positions or jobs are more important than others. These need to be done in order for the society to continue to survive. These jobs also require special skills. Therefore, in order to attract talented people to fill these important jobs, they should be paid more, enjoy higher prestige, have more power etc. For example, high level managers carry out important work which requires skill, therefore they should be paid more than a clerk. Similarly, a doctor should be paid more than a lab technician. Such a system of "meritocracy" where talented people fill the most important jobs and are paid well for their services would, according to the structural functionalists, be good for the rest of society. In theory, this is how a country like Singapore works.

A criticism of the Marxist theory of inequality is that the Marxist vision of a "classless society" is utopian and unrealistic. Even in strict Communist countries such as China during the rule of Mao Zedong, the highest paid people were paid more than the lowest paid people. Also, inequality does not arise from economic factors and the capitalist system alone. Feminists point out that gender inequality is common in non-capitalist, traditional societies. Similarly, ethnic inequality can also be found in non-capitalist societies e.g. the persecution and mistreatment of Jews in Europe even before the rise of capitalism.

As mentioned earlier, while Marxists believe that inequality is not inevitable (a classless society is possible) and is harmful to the working class, structural functionalist believe that it is inevitable, universal and even functional.

While Marxists believe that inequality arises from ownership and non-ownership of the means of production, structural functionalists believe that inequality is due to differential individual achievement. The structural functional view can be criticised, e.g., the extent to which inequality reflects achievement is exaggerated. Children who come from working class families are at a strong disadvantage in terms of "life chances" compared to children from upper class families. For example, bright children from working class families often cannot afford to study for an advanced university degree because of financial reasons or because they have to help support the rest of the family. Children from upper class families are often helped by their parents and relatives (or their parents' friends) to get good jobs. Structural functionalists ignore the inheritance of class position.

Davis and Moore argued that important jobs which require a high level of skills should be paid more. However, there are important jobs which do not pay well and which do not enjoy high prestige, e.g., nursing, childcare workers, primary school teachers and so on. Furthermore, star entertainers (actors and actresses, singers, professional athletes) get paid very well although the work they do is not essential for the survival of the society.

Lastly, while Marxists argue that inequality benefits the capitalist class at the direct expense of the working class, structural functionalists like Davis and Moore argued that when the most talented people get to fill the most important positions, everybody benefits (including people at the bottom of society).


In sociology, the word "gender" refers to the socially constructed behaviour, roles etc. expected of males and females (while "sex" refers to the biological and physical differences between men and women). For example, in Malaysian society, males are expected to behave in ways "appropriate" to their sex while females are also expected to behave in ways "appropriate" to their sex. People who do not act according to such social expectations (e.g. men who like to dress in "women's clothes" and women who smoke and drink heavily) will be subjected to strong negative reaction by the rest of society.

Gender is also strongly linked to inequality and life chances. In most societies, women have poorer life chances than men. In politics, few women hold powerful positions such as that of Prime Minister or President of a nation. Often, those who end up in these positions do so because their fathers or husbands were powerful politicians. Examples of the first group include people like Indira Gandhi (her father was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India), Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, etc. Women like Corazon Aquino of the Philippines ended up in powerful positions because they were married to powerful husbands.

Women tend to be under-represented in Parliaments and National Assemblies in most nations. This is also the case in Communist countries where there is supposed to be equality between men and women. Women are also under-represented in Cabinets and the top ranks of the civil service, the police, the armed forces and in private sector companies. Women who are cabinet ministers are often given relatively unimportant positions such as "Minister of Social Welfare" while important positions such as Minister of Finance, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defence etc. tend to be held by men. Feminists often complain of laws passed by male-dominated Parliaments which ignore the needs of women or which actually discriminate against women. For example, the foreign wife whose marriage to a Malaysian husband ends in divorce is subject to deportation from Malaysia no matter how long she has lived in this country.

Women are subjected to "vertical occupational segregation" and also "horizontal occupational segregation". Vertical occupational segregation means that there are less and less women the higher up one goes in an organisation or a profession. For example, most Chief Executive Officers and General Managers of big companies are men while most clerks, secretaries etc. are women. Women tend to be concentrated in so-called "women's jobs" such as nursing, secretarial work etc. which often do not pay well and do not have much prestige. This concentration of women in certain kinds of jobs is called horizontal occupational segregation. Women are often discriminated against in many countries when it comes to job hiring and promotion. In Japan, it is common for women to lose their jobs when they get married and become pregnant. Women may also experience sexual harassment from male supervisors while working. In some countries, there are no laws to protect women against sexual harassment.

Women are often disadvantaged socially also. In China and India today, the problem of "selective abortion" exists, i.e., an unborn baby girl is aborted just because her parents prefer to have a male child instead of a female child. In the family, sons may be treated better than daughters, e.g., sons have more freedom, daughters have to help with the housework, parents may spend more on educating sons than daughters. In countries like India, illiterate people are disproportionately women. After the death of parents, sons may also inherit more property than daughters.

Many women are subjected to domestic violence, e.g., they may be beaten by abusive boyfriends and husbands. Women often sacrifice their education or their careers for the sake of their husbands. Working women often suffer from the "Double Burden" or the "Supermom Syndrome". Although they work full-time outside the home, they are also expected to do most of the housework and take care of the children when they get home.

Divorce often hurts the wife more than the husband. This is especilly true of housewives and of women who have sacrificed their education or careers for the sake of their husbands and children. Divorced women often suffer substantial downward social mobility.

Many religions also treat men and women unequally, e.g., women are not allowed to be priests in Roman Catholic Christianity. In Islam, men are allowed to have four wives but women are not allowed to have multiple husbands.

About the only advantage women have over men is the longer life expectancy of women. Women tend to live longer, on average, than men.

Theories to explain gender inequality include human capital theory, liberal feminist theory, radical feminist theory, Marxist theory and structural functional theory.

Human capital theory: Some argue that women usually earn less than men because women tend to have less investment in "human capital" (in the form of education, training and so on) than men. Also, they argue that women are more likely to experience career interruption than men, e.g., women may drop out of the labour force temporarily or permanently after they give birth. Some women who return to work after childbirth choose to work part-time. This will affect the chances of career success for the women.

Liberal feminist theory: Liberal feminists recognise that there is often strong discrimination against women in many societies. They point out that the traditional sexual division of labour works to the disadvantage of women - men participate in the public sphere which brings more reward in terms of power, prestige and wealth while women are in the private sphere (domestic sphere) where they do unpaid work (housework, child-rearing etc) and do not earn money and are socially isolated.

Furthermore, the job market often works to the disadvantage of women, e.g., to be promoted, the employee often has to work late, work on weekends, go on business trips, accept transfers to other towns and so on. The family obligations of women often prevent them from doing all these. Working women often suffer from the "Double Burden" or the "Supermom Syndrome", i.e., they not only work outside the home but they also have to do the housework and take care of the children after getting home from work.

Liberal feminists argue that one way to reduce gender inequality is to change the socialisation of girls. For example, socialise girls to be more ambitious, to be more assertative and so on. Toward this end, gender stereotyping in children's books, schoolbooks etc. should be ended. Pictures in books can show females who work as managers, pilots, engineers, lawyers etc. Liberal feminists also argue that there should be strong laws against gender discrimination when it comes to the hiring and promotion of employees.

Radical feminists believe that "patriarchy" is a major problem in most societies. Patriarchy means male domination of the society. Radical feminists believe that ALL males benefit by keeping women in a subordinate position and by exploiting them. Women are kept in a subordinate position by many means (including discriminatory customs and laws, sexual harassment, domestic violence and even rape).

Marxists believe that there is gender inequality because this benefits capitalism. The traditional sexual division of labour (men work for wages outside the home while women do unpaid housework and provide unpaid childcare at home) actually benefits capitalists because the capitalists do not need to pay their male workers higher wages when the workers have wives to do "free" work for them at home. Working class women help in the social reproduction of the labour force for the capitalist system.

According to the Marxists, women also act as part of the "industrial reserve army" for capitalism. When there is a shortage of labour, women are encouraged to leave their homes and work in factories and offices. However, when there is a surplus of labour, women will be laid off or fired and forced back into their homes.

As for the structural functionalists such as Talcott Parsons, the traditional sexual division of labour is a positive thing because it is functional for society. Men play an "instrumental role" (breadwinner for the family) while women play an "expressive role" (provide emotional support for their husbands and children). This will allow families to function effectively as an institution for socialising the next generation of children.

Click here for material on Sociological Theory (Page 5)

Click here to return to Dr Phua's Main Page