The concept of social capital has been widely used in educational research. However, researchers have yet to come to an agreement over what constitutes social capital and what its effects are on educational and other social outcomes. There are at least two distinct theories of social capital commonly used by educational researchers. The first, by James S. Coleman, conceptualizes social capital as the relational ties among individuals within a closed functional community (Coleman& Hoffer 1987; Coleman 1988, 1990). This perspective highlights the benefits of membership within a social system and emphasizes the functional form of social capital. The second, by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, also emphasizes the interconnectedness of individuals within a social system but additionally highlights members’ access to institutional resources as well as their consumptive behaviors that enable them to reproduce other forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986).
Coleman (1988) distinguishes social capital from human and economic capital by arguing that social capital is obtained through the relational ties of individuals in a social system, whereas human capital is increased through education and training, and economic capital is accrued through the reinvestment of capital for profit. Intangible, social capital is an abstract resource that actors use to facilitate certain actions that lead to productive outcomes (Coleman 1988). Social capital inheres in the relations among actors and is not lodged within any single individual but rather develops out of sustained interactions among actors.
Properties of social capital include (1) the degree of closure or interconnectedness of ties within a social network and (2) the density of social ties among its members. Coleman argues that a high degree of network closure enhances communication among members, thus strengthening ties. The density of social ties also facilitates the articulation of mutual expectations and obligations for network membership, which allows members to discern whether others are fulfilling their agreed upon obligations. Shared norms, expectations, mutual obligations, and effective sanctions serve to strengthen social ties and give rise to another form of social capital, trustworthiness. Network members are regarded as trustworthy when they fulfill their obligations to others within the network. Networks characterized by high levels of trustworthiness are those in which members enforce agreed upon norms through sanctioning unacceptable behavior.
For example, parents can draw on the social resources available within the network to monitor their children’s behavior. The closure of the network and the density of the ties among parents and other adults in the network encourage the flow of information about their children’s activities. If a child misbehaves in the presence of other adults in the community, they can be trusted to notify the child’s parent of the child’s behavior with the expectation that such misbehavior will be prevented by the parent in the future.
Offering an alternative perspective on social capital, Bourdieu argues that network collectivity is maintained through investment strategies that strengthen and ensure the durability of relationships binding individuals to each other. These investments and exchanges occur through ceremonies, ritualized meetings, and other social activities (Bourdieu 1986: 250). To Bourdieu, social capital is used to accrue advantages which are ascribed to social networks by virtue of their position within a social structure rather than from the inherent qualities of the relationships between individuals within the network. In contrast to Coleman, Bourdieu views social capital within the context of social stratification and reproduction, underscoring the benefits afforded to individuals located differentially within the social structure. As Portes (1998: 3) notes, Bourdieu’s treatment of social capital is ”instrumental, focusing on the benefits accruing to individuals by virtue of participation in groups and on the deliberate construction of sociability for the purpose of creating this resource.”
Bourdieu defines social capital both as the social ties between individuals and the sum of resources that are available as a result of those ties. He suggests that actors operate within a social hierarchy, and individuals at varying positions in the social hierarchy will differ in their associated networks and in their access to social capital. For example, individuals of low social status may have ties primarily to other individuals of low status who can contribute only limited resources to the relationship. He notes, however, that individuals can increase their access to social capital by expanding their network of social relationships to others outside the primary network. This point is also developed by Granovetter (1973) and Burt (1992), who suggest that weak social ties within the net work’s structural configuration allow for greater individual mobility and more diverse channels for information and resources within and between networks.
Educational research more closely aligned with Coleman’s conception of social capital tends to identify the productive, or positive, outcomes associated with increasing social capital within a social system, such as raising children’s educational expectations, achievement, and attainment. On the other hand, scholars whose work relies more on Bourdieu’s articulation of social capital emphasize the social structural implications of differential access to and use of social capital in reproducing inequalities in society.
Social Capital Theory and Its Application in Educational Research
Educational researchers have examined both the various functions and forms of social capital within schools and its influence on student outcomes (i.e., achievement, attainment, and aspirations). According to Stanton Salazar and Dornbusch (1995), institutional agents, such as counselors, teachers, and other students, are gatekeepers of resources and opportunities within schools, and students with access to these institutional agents are at a distinct advantage. Stanton Salazar and Dornbusch report that Mexican American students with ties to institutional agents experience changes in their educational aspirations and expectations. Measuring social capital as the number of ties (strong and weak) students have with institutional agents (school, family, and non-family ties), they suggest that students may increase access to more diverse networks through strong and weak ties by maintaining Spanish use within the school. They conclude that bilingualism plays a prominent role in determining access to social capital for Mexican American students because they experience network advantages in accessing institutional support not available to Spanish dominant immigrant students and English dominant working class students.
Maintaining one’s own culture may increase the strength of ties within an ethnically or culturally determined network; however, assimilating into institutions such as schools may be necessary to develop weak ties to the institutional agents who offer guidance for academic success. For example, Portes (1998) argues that immigrants can adapt to mainstream culture while retaining positive aspects of their country of origin. He challenges the view that complete assimilation is the optimal mode of adaptation for upward social mobility in an English dominated, nationalist environment.
Although high concentrations of black and Hispanic students within urban centers have been suggested to create a negative ”culture of poverty” effect on achievement, Goldsmith (2004) finds that, in racially segregated schools, denser, more cohesive ties among students and teachers lead to higher educational expectations among Mexican American students than in schools that are more ethnically mixed or mostly white. Additionally, while agreeing with Coleman’s (1988) suggestion that being in a single parent family negatively affects students’ achievement, Pong (1998) finds that social capital can counteract the negative effect of non-intact families on mathematics and reading achievement. In schools with high concentrations of students from single parent families and stepfamilies, dense networks between single parents counteract the negative effects of these family forms on student achievement.
Scholars have taken an organizational perspective to explore the function that social capital plays in facilitating professional development among teachers. For example, Frank et al. (2004) argue that social capital within schools promotes the diffusion of teaching innovations between teachers and administrators. By observing and interacting with other teaching professionals, teachers and administrators are pressured to improve their pedagogical practices and also more easily benefit from the expertise of their colleagues. Frank et al. find that ”change agents,” that is, teachers who have already adopted new pedagogical techniques, should participate in local social capital processes that are related to the implementation of educational innovations and reforms. The authors recommend that change agents spend some of their professional development time interacting with other organizational members in order to share skills or cultivate new expertise.
Coleman (1988; Coleman & Hoffer 1987) argues that close relations between parents and students within the school produce increased student achievement. However, scholars have reexamined Coleman’s work on the direct and positive effect that intergenerational closure has on student outcomes and found different results. Examining intergenerational closure among parents in public and private schools, Morgan and Sorenson find a negative association of closure with mathematics achievement, despite dense friendship networks. However, public schools characterized by closure among students, teachers, parents, and administrators were shown to positively affect student math achievement.
Trust between teachers, parents, and students is one of the most fundamental forms of social capital. Bryk and Schneider (2002) argue that within the school community, individuals are interconnected through a set of mutual dependencies which make them vulnerable to sanctions from other community members. Therefore, school members build relational trust in order to ameliorate the uncertainty that arises from their mutual vulnerability to each other. Relational trust, therefore, is derived from discerning the intentionality and discrete interactions that individuals have with each other in the community. Schools characterized by high levels of relational trust are much more likely to experience sustained improvement in student academic achievement, and teachers and administrators in these schools are likely to be more committed to students’ learning.
Similarly, Goddard (2003) connects trust worthiness to both the structural and functional forms of social capital. Trust, measured as the relational networks that connect parents and community members, was found to have a significant, positive effect on students’ likelihood of passing high stakes standardized tests. These trusting relationships were supported by norms that encourage learning within the school environment. Trust has also been found to be a key element in the development of leadership within schools. The relationships between teachers, administrators, and instruction specialists act as sources from which teachers obtain professional development and assistance. When developing leadership within the school, teachers can draw on trusting relationships with administrators and other teachers as sources of professional assistance. Trust, therefore, acts as a fundamental institutional resource for enhancing student learning and developing teacher professionalism.
Other research has examined the dynamic aspects of social ties and the ways in which these ties are mobilized for the achievement of goals (i.e., functional specificity; see Sandefur & Laumann 1998; Kim & Schneider 2006). Within schools, parents and teachers activate network connections to “broker” for their students. For example, Lareau (2003) demonstrates the different techniques employed by lower and middle class families in an attempt to improve student learning. These techniques vary by class and race, and produce both positive and negative student outcomes. Lareau finds that middle class parents use a technique of concerted cultivation in order to foster their children’s talents in leisure and academic activities. Working class and poor parents, on the other hand, do not engage in this concerted cultivation, and instead trust the expertise and knowledge of educational professionals in directing their children’s educational trajectories.
Critiques of Social Capital in School Research: Substantive and Methodological
Recent applications of social capital theory suggest that the formation of strong ties does not always have positive effects and can constrain the actions of network members (Portes & Sensenbrenner 1993). Intergenerational closure, for example, may promote normative behavior such as childrearing practices among working families (Parcel & Menaghan 1994), but it may also have a negative impact by inhibiting actions that could be beneficial, such as low resource parents interacting frequently with their children’s teacher. In other words, one form of social capital that works for a certain type of result may not work for other outcomes. Accordingly, Portes (1998: 15) identifies four negative consequences of social capital. Specifically regarding educational outcomes, strong norms may foster an environment of lowered expectations and behavior (defined as a downward leveling of norms).
Other scholars have also examined the deleterious effect of the negative or counterfeit social capital that teachers create with students. For example, though finding that positive student-teacher relations tend to positively affect student achievement, Ream (2003) concludes that teachers who cultivate and nurture social relations in the classroom for the sole purpose of maintaining classroom harmony do so at the expense of academic content. This negative social capital is epitomized by a teacher who excuses rather than sanctions misbehavior in order to maintain the already close relationship with a student. Although fostering positive relationships between teachers and students, this type of ”defensive teaching” ultimately undermines academic achievement and serves to negatively affect academic progress.
Finally, research using social capital as a predictor of social outcomes has largely been descriptive and correlational rather than causal; causal links between social capital and its outcomes have been only weakly established. Some scholars, however, have attempted to remedy this lack of scientifically rigorous research by isolating the effects of social capital within the family on student academic achievement. Schneider and Coleman (1993) also look within the family and treat parental participation, family composition, maternal employment, and family activities as indicators of social capital. Characterizing social capital as a resource that facilitates action, these authors treat parental efforts and interventions in their child’s schooling as positive influences in student learning. Despite the deficiencies in its use and definition, social capital continues to be a useful analytic concept for understanding relational ties and how they promote norms, sanctions, and trust between parents, students, teachers, and administrators.
- Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital. In: Richardson, J. (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood Press, New York, pp. 241-58.
- Bryk, A. S. & Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
- Burt, R. (1992) Structural Holes. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Coleman, J. S. (1988) Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology 94: S95-S120.
- Coleman, J. S. (1990) Foundations of Social Theory. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Coleman, J. S. & Hoffer, T. (1987) Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities. Basic Books, New York.
- Frank, K. A., Zhao, Y., & Borman, K. (2004) Social Capital and the Diffusion of Innovations Within Organizations: The Case of Computer Technology in Schools. Sociology of Education 77(2): 148-71.
- Goddard, R. D. (2003) Relational Networks, Social Trust, and Norms: A Social Capital Perspective on Students’ Chances of Academic Success. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 25(1): 59-74.
- Goldsmith, P. A. (2004) Schools’ Racial Mix, Students’ Optimism, and the Black White and Latino White Achievement Gaps. Sociology of Education 77(2): 121-47.
- Granovetter, M. (1973) The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78(6): 1360-80.
- Kim, D. H. & Schneider, B. (2006) Social Capital in Action: Alignment of Parental Support in Adolescents’ Transition to Postsecondary Education. Social Forces.
- Lareau, A. (2003) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Parcel, T. L. & Menaghan, E. G. (1994) Early Parental Work, Family Social Capital, and Early Childhood Outcomes. American Journal of Sociology 99(4): 972-1009.
- Pong, S.-L. (1998) The School Compositional Effect of Single Parenthood on 10th-Grade Achievement. Sociology of Education 71(1): 23-42.
- Portes, A. (1998) Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology. Annual Reviews in Sociology 24: 1-24.
- Portes, A. & Sensenbrenner, J. (1993) Embeddedness and Immigration: Notes on the Social Determinants of Economic Action. American Journal of Sociology 98(6): 1320-50.
- Ream, R. K. (2003) Counterfeit Social Capital and Mexican-American Underachievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 25(3): 237-62.
- Sandefur, R. L. & Laumann, E. O. (1998) A Paradigm for Social Capital. Rationality and Society 10 (4): 481-501.
- Schneider, B. & Coleman, J. S. (1993) Parents, Their Children, and Schools. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
- Stanton-Salazar, R. D. & Dornbusch, S. M. (1995) Social Capital and the Reproduction of Inequality: Information Networks Among Mexican-Origin High School Students. Sociology of Education 68(2): 116-35.