The Sociology of Education and Work
Bills, David B.
Blackwell Publishers, Oxford
£ 19.99, (pb)
pp. xi + 250
In this book, David Bills casts a broad net over education and work in the USA. His focus is not on specific aspects or parts of either the educational system or the world of work. Both concepts – education and work – encompass a broad array of activities and structures. 'Education' focuses on institutionalized forms of learning and instruction (e.g., in schools, on the work floor, via distance learning). 'Work' is broadly defined as paid work; it includes those activities done voluntary in exchange for monetary remuneration – but excludes activities such as unpaid domestic work or voluntarism. Notwithstanding this search for some of the breadth of both terrains, this book offers a differentiated in-depth account of the relationship between education and work. Bills provides a balanced combination and overview of conceptual issues and empirical research findings. Schooling may not guarantee its holder a bright socioeconomic future, if one had to bet on a secure investment in one's future, investing in educational credentials is generally a sound policy.
In the first chapters of his book, Bills devotes attention to classical approaches in the sociol-ogy of education and work. He discusses and compares the views of those who believe that the associations between school and work developed for rational and beneficial reasons (meri-tocrats) and those who believe that educational credentials are little more than exclusionary means of preserving socioeconomic advantage across socioeconomic classes (credentialists). His conclusion is that there is an unmistakable trend towards meritocracy in the USA. Against this background, Bills then focuses on the changing relationship between education and work. His emphasis is most of all on transitions, which were initiated in the second half of the twen-tieth century. He deals at length with how the relationship between education and work is or could be shaped differently in the post-industrial society. He also explores the consequences of the recent demographic boosts and busts and the immigration waves. The book's final chapters are devoted to the analysis of the changes in people's life course, transformations in the school system (such as the post-war expansion of higher education) and the possibilities of the learning society (lifelong learning).
Throughout the different chapters, Bills uses a similar strategy. He departs from and builds upon classical and highly influential sociological analyses – such as Randall Collins' notion of the credential society or Daniel Bell's formulation of the post-industrial society. This al-lows him to reduce the complexity of the underlying issues and debates. It also makes it rela-tively easy to follow the construction of Bills' argument throughout the entire book. But this strategy also entails some disadvantages. In my view, at least two problems can be indicated. First, there is the problem that not all of Bills' classics have in common that they are often cited but rarely read. Although some of his summaries and overviews of this literature are ex-cellent, others do not add something new. A few chapters (such as Chapter 2) are too conven-tional and somewhat long-winded. Second, and related to this, there is the issue of the selec-tion of these classics. Bills not only presents, but also chooses and 'constructs' his classics. Some of the choices are difficult to follow (both with regard to the inclusion and exclusion of particular literature). Overall, there is in my view an overemphasis on the 'radical' changes in the relationship between education and work in the post-war era. Bills discusses some litera-ture which point in the other direction – such as Andrew Abbott's historical-sociological work on the system of professions. But if more attention would have been paid to the longue durée, it would probably also have been possible to relativise some of the myths about the impact of the post-industrial society on institutionalized forms of education.
University of Bielefeld (Germany)