Sociological Theories In The Movie Freedom Writers

Freedom Writers, a book to film adaptation, follows the storyline of Erin Gruwell’s first-year students and her high-risk class in Room 203. The movie begins with the narration of Eva, the main protagonist. She explains the strict code of morality of caring for one’s self. This code will be the main conflict of this film. The story is about a group of students who are racially charged and live in a violent environment. The story is told at Woodrow Wilson High School near Long Beach, California. After the integration program, the staff at the school deemed it a failure. They felt the newer, lower-performing students had caused the school to underperform as a group. Ms. Gruwell was teaching a group of students that had been deemed to be underperforming. They were all reading below grade-level, and many did not even have a high school diploma. Ms. Gruwell, upon arriving at Wilson High, clashed with the department chief who believed resources should only be allocated to those students who excelled or were a part of the Honors Program. Ms. Gruwell, in turn, began fighting for resources and funds. She gives every student an empty journal for them to freely write in. Hearing their stories of the struggles they face on a daily basis opens her eyes. The students gradually begin to overcome the racial divide (partly due to an dislike for the teacher). Over the next two years they achieve grade-level expectations. Ms. Gruwell, along with her two-year students, faces opposition from her colleagues and the school district. Even her husband is not supportive. Eventually, Ms. Gruwell overcomes the obstacles, and her students stay with her for four years.

The movie shows how sociological theories like conflict theory or labeling theory can be applied. Conflict Theory is an alternative model to the Social Order Theory. According to the theory, society’s structure is based around fundamental injustices that favor certain groups or people while disadvantaging others. The theory allows people to release their full potential by challenging current power structures. The society is not based on shared values and norms, as in social order theories or functionalism. Instead, a group can take action against a dominant party that has the power to control or influence weaker groups. Normally conflict theories are applied on a larger scale. In this instance, however, conflict theories can be used to analyze the microcosm, Room 203, at Wilson High. In order to understand deviant behavior, labeling theories are used. Labeling theorists believe that the classification terms and self-identification of an individual can influence their behavior. In essence, what is said about someone determines who they are. Labels may cause an individual’s behavior to change, which could affect the expectations of teachers and lead to a prediction that otherwise would have never happened.

The conflict in the film is a result of the gang ties between the students. When it comes to conflict theory and education, this movie presents evidence that supports the theory. Evidence “(1) that status groups cultures are differentiated based on class as well as ethnicity”. The honors students were mostly white while the majority of Ms. Gruwell’s students were minority. Conflict theory can also be seen in the positions of faculty. The modern society has a hierarchy when it comes to authority and the faculty. As shown in the film, Ms. Gruwell goes to her principal directly after failing to convince her section leader to provide better material for her student. Later, she also speaks to the board of education. Evidence (2) of Conflict Theory states “status groups tend to occupy different occupational positions within organizations…Evidence (3) of Conflict Theory states that occupants of different organizational positions struggle over power” ; these apply directly to the portion of the story where Ms. Gruwell is facing difficulties convincing her superiors to provide better resources for these students. Minority students at Wilson were also ranked in a hierarchy by the faculty who had been there during the integration program. The students from Room 203 had gangs with which they preyed and the weaker gangs rose up against them.

The Labeling Theory is the most prevalent theory in the film. One of my first examples is in the scene where the students are introduced to Ms. Gruwell. Not the walking itself, but the description of them. Ms. Campbell was the English section leader and introduced her students in the way that “some have to be ankle cuffed to monitor their locations, two months out of youth hall”. This labeling helps the school officials to treat the minority as deviants. Ms. Campbell goes on to explain the need for lesson plans to be revised, as students’ test results indicated that they were too challenging. The labeling concept allows the teacher here to modify expectations. These expectations can lead to inferences being made about students based on their class or status. This is what leads to a self-fulfilling labeling theory.

The movie is a tale of infinite time. A hierarchy-based society decides to label subcultures, which makes them deviant. Deviance creates tension between subcultures. The tension between the two subcultures escalates and a power battle ensues. Conflicts arise until a consensus has been reached. Conflict Theory as well as Labeling Theory have been applied throughout the entire film. This is a major part of our education system today. Labels may not be based on race, gang affiliation or gender, but are based upon whether a person is a gifted student, an average student or someone below average. Labels are used to determine expectations of teachers and standardization is what makes education unequal for two groups.


  • joaquincain

    Joaquin Cain is a 39 year old school teacher and blogger from the United States. He has a passion for education and is always looking for new and innovative ways to help his students learn. He is also a big believer in the power of technology and its ability to help improve education.