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Assessing The Education And Social Capital Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4691 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (Putnam 2000) cites an obscure rural educator, Lyda J Hanifan, as the first use of the term “social capital” in an 1916 essay about the development of schools as community centres. Putnam’s genealogy has become the canonical one, cited in much of the subsequent literature, but in a recent article, conceptual historian James Farr has shown the limitations of Putnam’s research (Farr 2004). Farr demonstrates that the term “social capital” was in much wider use in the period, importantly by John Dewey who was a leader in the movement of which Hanifan was a part. Farr surmises that Hanifan drew the term from Dewey’s work. As well, he traces other uses of the term, including by Marx, and another contemporary sense of the term in relation to collective ownership of property, and the collective profit from labour. Farr’s exploration of the history of the concept adds significantly to our understanding of social capital, as it shows that the conjunction of social benefit and economic language was more widespread earlier than attributed by other theorists, as well as placing Dewey’s critical pragmatism into the family tree of the concept.

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The inspiring theorist of these movements was John Dewey, who was himself extensively involved in some of them. Dewey himself used the term (see quote p 10) and his conceptual framework and language drew upon and developed the idea of work together creating common bonds (of sympathy and cooperation) which were a resource for people in communities. Farr draws out three important points about Dewey’s use of social capital: firstly, that criticism must be balanced with construction, second, the importance of sympathy, third, the combination of “social” and “capital” for rhetorical effect. Dewey focussed on the relationship of school and society, and the potential contribution of education to enable rather than fetter social capital. Balancing criticism and construction is at the heart of critical pragmatism – (p10) crisis gives rise to critical reflection which creates ideas to guide action to address the crisis. Sympathy “entailed the ordinary sense of feeling concern or compassion for others, especially those denied or deprived life’s essentials, including social capital”, but also the capacity of imagination that allows people to relate to and appreciate commonalities with others in different circumstances ( p11).

In schools – “….each individual gets an opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and come into contact with a broader environment.” (Democracy and Education, 1916, p20) (See also JS Mill) – Prefigures discussion of Bonding and Bridging social capital.

Farr shows Dewey’s use of economic terminology as a “terminological strategy” of critical pragmatism (12), citing other examples like that of “unused talent” as “wasted capital”.

The Dewey/ Hanifan use of “social capital” is very close to Putnam’s, idealising as it does particular forms of social interaction and community life, the interaction between institutions (of education and of governance) with citizens both individually and collectively, and the potential re-shaping of these institutions to meet collective needs.

I will skim over the “middle period” of social capital’s development. Between the 1920s and 1980s the term was used by assorted sociologists and others – notably Glen Loury and Jane Jacobs(Jacobs 1964). None of these writers had a particular interest in education. Another important development in the period however was the development and increased currency of the term “human capital”. Gary Becker is credited with developing the theory of expenditures on education, training, health etc as investments in human capital, with a logic of returns similar to that of physical capital. (Becker 1964). This was an important precursor to the work of Coleman in particular.

2. Coleman and Bourdieu

The two major strands of thought on social capital were developed in the late 1980s, by sociologists of education Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman. Bourdieu’s most detailed discussion of social capital appeared in his 1986 essay “The Forms of Capital” which was translated by Richard Nice and published in an English language anthology (Bourdieu 1986).Coleman’s article, “Social capital in the creation of human capital”, was published three years later in the American Journal of Sociology (Coleman 1989). Although they co-organised a conference in 1989 in Chicago and co-edited its proceedings (Bourdieu and Coleman 1991), the development of the two conceptions has happened independently and without reference to the work of the other. Indeed, a striking aspect of the literature is how comprehensively the two strands have ignored each other, particularly to the neglect of Bourdieu (Fine 2001; Field 2003). The result of this is that the Coleman tradition constitutes the largest part of the social capital literature since the 1990s, largely because of Coleman’s influence on Robert Putnam but also because of the continuing influence of Coleman’s original studies, as discussed below. Although Field (Field 2003) categorises Putnam’s work as a third strand to that of Bourdieu and Coleman, I would argue that Putnam follows on directly from Coleman in his concerns with neighbourhood influences and voluntary associations, as well as his conflation of the sources and benefits of social capital.


Bourdieu’s and Coleman’s definitions of social capital are similar in that they both emphasise the functional value of social relations as resources available to agents. In Bourdieu’s words:

“Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words – to membership in a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a “credential” which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.” (Bourdieu 1986)

Similarly, Coleman defines social capital as connections – “social capital inheres in the structure of relations between and among actors” (p98) – and its use value:

Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity but a variety of different entities, with two elements in common: they all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate certain actions of actors – whether personal or corporate actors – within the structure. (p 98). (Coleman 1989)

Later iterations (for example Woolcock, OECD, Foley and Edwards) have sharpened these definitions, distinguishing more clearly networks and the norms which create reciprocity as the two elements of social capital. Portes has emphasised the need to separate membership of a network or group as the source of social capital and the benefits which may be gained from this membership (Portes 1998). Going one step further, Foley and Edwards offer the formula “Social capital is best conceived as access (networks) plus resources.” ((Foley and Edwards 1999) p 166). Putnam argues for the inclusion of trust – social capital as networks, norms and trust. (Putnam 2000), but Woolcock prefers an even sharper definition, defining trust as a product rather than a constitutent part of social capital (Woolcock 1998).


Both Coleman and Bourdieu have an instrumentalist view of social capital as a resource, inherent in social relationships, which can be used by individuals and institutional agents to various ends. Both see social capital as interacting with and transactable for other forms of capital, although this Bourdieu elaborates the dynamics of this interaction in far more detail.

Coleman is particularly concerned with the interaction between social capital and human capital, although he acknowledges that these transactions may be limited: “like physical capital and human capital, social capital is not completely fungible but may be specific to certain activities. A given form of social capital that is valuable in facilitating certain actions may be useless or even harmful for others.” (p 98). Coleman shows that social capital is not just a property of the elite, and to some degree compensate for the lack of other forms of capital.

Coleman uses the framework of rational action, although “without the assumption of atomistic elements stripped of social relationships” (Coleman 1989). His view of social capital emphasises the importance of network closure (ie that your friends know your other friends, and in particular that you are friends with parents of your children’s schoolmates). Coleman identifies three key aspects of social capital: obligations and expectations (which depend on the trustworthiness of the social environment), the information-flow capability of the social structure, and the presence of norms accompanied by sanctions. The classic example he offers is that of diamond traders in New York, where a dense network enables the operation of collective norms and effective sanctions so that the market operates with a high degree of trust. Thus the context of relationships creates incentives and sanctions which guide individual rational behaviour.

In contrast to Bourdieu’s interest in class groupings, Coleman is concerned primarily with the family and neighbourhood. For Coleman it is the presence of effective norms and sanctions within the immediate family that is most important for educational attainment. He emphasises the role of mothers in particular in fostering this environment. Coleman argues for a differentiation between “primordial” – “social organization that has its origins in the relationships established by childbirth” (p 1) – and “constructed” social structures – those which are constructed for either a single purpose or a narrow range of purposes” (p 3) (Bourdieu and Coleman 1991). Unsurprisingly, Coleman’s work has been subject to feminist critiques (eg Morrow) arguing that his view of the family is highly patriarchal. Other critics have questioned Coleman’s valorisation at close (bonding) ties rather than weak (bridging) ties (Portes, Stanton-Salazar).

In Bourdieu’s schema, social capital interacts with economic and cultural capital. In fact, social capital is a less important aspect of Bourdieu’s theory of social structure than cultural capital. In Bourdieu’s terms, actors compete for capital within “fields” of activity. Complex societies are composed of a number of fields, each with their own specific logic (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). Although some fields may have dominance (eg the economic field in capitalist economies) (p 109) and the State has a role in regulating the operation of all fields, they are never entirely reducible to one dynamic (p 97). These fields are configurations of relationships in which positions are defined by the distribution of capital in different forms across the actors (individual or institutional) in a field (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). Some actors have more capital and so are dominant over those with less; others may have equal but different compositions of capital at their disposal which puts them in a different relationship to other actors and the field itself. The actor’s position is historically determined: that stock of capital has been accumulated or reduced over time through exchanges which are shaped by the existing relationships and by the “rules of the game” – the relative value of different forms of capital and the ability to convert capital from one type to another.

Differences: agency, boundaries

The key differences between Bourdieu’s and Coleman’s conception of social capital stem largely from their philosophical stances. Bourdieu emphasises access to institutional resources; Coleman emphasises norms (Dika and Singh 2002). As outlined above, Bourdieu conceptualises social capital as operating in a social field which is hierarchically structured. Like other forms of capital, social capital is held disproportionately by elites. The tendency is for the existing power relations to reproduce themselves; there is little sense in Bourdieu that the existing structure can be challenged (Jenkins 1992)

An interesting difference between the two is the extent to which development of social capital is a deliberate strategy (Baron, Field et al. 2001). Coleman sees social capital as a by product “a largely unintentional process” (Baron, Field et al. 2001)p 7), as individuals are primarily concerned with advancing their own interests. He gives the example of a mother returning to work, and as a result relinquishing her active role in school activities. Even though the action is rational in relation to her own and her family’s interests, it causes a net loss of social capital for the other families associated with the school.

Bourdieu sees “an endless effort at institution” – “the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term”. (Bourdieu 1986) 249. Bourdieu emphasises the non-conscious aspects of the transmission of cultural capital – that children in cultural capital-rich environments tend to absorb the advantages unknowingly. He sees the education system as about the transmission of cultural capital – examinations etc are “collective magic” making cultural capital visible and validated. He argues that the education system increases in importance when social hierarchies based on descent are challenged.

Bourdieu is highly critical of rational action theory (RAT), the tradition of which Coleman is a part, although Jenkins argues that some of the accusations Bourdieu makes can be turned back on him (Jenkins 1992). Bourdieu argues that RAT substitutes an arbitrary rationality/ interest for a culturally/ historically located one. In so doing, RAT substitutes its analytical model for reality and locates the dynamic of social life in “pure” individual and conscious decision-making rather than in the individual and collective histories that generate social reality. This prevents a theoretical apprehension of relations between individuals and between individuals and their environment. (Jenkins 1992) However, Jenkins argues that in totally rejecting RAT Bourdieu creates a problem for his theory, because he denies that conscious decision-making does have a role – people do form plans and try to implement them. (Jenkins 1992)

Jenkins is somewhat unfair – Bourdieu’s theory of interest is more sophisticated than that.

Similarly, Bourdieu is suspicious of coherent groupings, emphasising how groups gate-keep and exclude, whatever the internal benefits to those on the inside.

This is key difference between the two – Coleman wants more social capital; Bourdieu questions what sort and for whom.

3. How “social capital” has been taken up in the educational literature

Baron, Field and Schuller offer a three-way typology of how social capital has been used in the literature: analysis, prescription, and heuristic (Baron, Field et al. 2001). I will use this framework to analyse the recent literature on social capital and education, drawing in particular on Dika and Singh’s excellent survey of journal articles on education and social capital in the period 1990 to 2001 (Dika and Singh 2002).


A large amount of the social capital and education literature has been devoted to largely re-running Coleman’s studies (Dika and Singh). There has been particular interest in different migrant populations in the USA. Like Coleman’s original work, these studies have used large US datasets not originally designed to capture social capital aspects. The indicators used by Coleman are: (within family) parents’ presence, number of siblings, mother’s expectation for child’s education and (outside family) number of moves (proxy for intergenerational closure). Coleman’s work on the differential performance of students in Catholic and other religious schools has also been replicated (Coleman 1989; Coleman 1990). As recently as two months ago the Catholic Education Office in Victoria has published similar work on the relative effectiveness of Catholic schools (Sheehan 2004).

In contrast to Coleman’s focus on “bonding” social capital, Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch studied educational attainment and social capital considering students’ own social networks and their “bridging” access to information-related support including personal advice about academic decisions, future educational and occupational plans and access to legal, health and employment services (Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch 1995). They found a more complex picture, in which bilingualism and associated cultural capital was a key factor in students’ access to sources of information and to institutional resources (p132) Grades were positively related to three different informational network variables: number of school-based weak ties, number of non-kin weak ties, and proportion of non-Mexican origin members. Dika and Singh point to the work of Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch as an example of how Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction and the interplay between cultural and social capital can be used to illuminate institutional aspects of social capital formation (Dika and Singh 2002).


Social capital is a concept of great interest to policymakers – even being described as the “missing link” (Grootaert and Van Bastelaer 2002) – and it has been enthusiastically embraced by organisations like the World Bank and the OECD. The use of social capital in policy development, particularly by the World Bank has been trenchantly criticised (Fine 2001; Harriss 2002). Some like Field have warned that social capital can only act as means to leverage existing resources, not create new ones (Field 2003). Despite this, Harriss argues that social capital theory has led to a programmatic emphasis on local development and “self-help”:

“even though this sometimes looks rather like expecting the most disadvantaged people to pull themselves up by their own boot straps, in a way which is remarkably convenient for those who wish to implement large-scale public expenditure cuts.” (Harriss 2002).

There has not been a similar strenous reaction against the policy prescriptions of the OECD in social capital and education. There is a substantial OECD literature on social capital and human capital, notably from the Quebec symposium of 2000 (Helliwell 2001). This literature is stimulated by the idea that education is one of the few intervention points for the creation of social capital (Schuller 2001). This tradition follows very much in the footsteps of Dewey and Hanifan, advocating education as a central aspect of social renewal. School as an intervention point – but risk of overburdening schools (Pamela Munn p 181).


Social capital has been seized on as a way of reinstating different forms of education into the debate, in particular continuing, adult, informal and vocational education (Winch 2000; Balatti and Falk 2001; Kearns 2004). For example, in a review of Christopher Winch’s book on vocational education and social capital, Richard Barrett writes that Winch achieves his aim of making vocational education a subject to be “given its deserved seriousness by philosophers of education” through his arguments about the civic aspects of vocational preparation (Barrett 2004). Schuller et al’s synthesis of their longitudinal research on the benefits of learning includes both “taught” and “non-taught” learning (Schuller 2004).

There have been fewer studies of the institutional implications of social capital. Barry Golding’s work on networks in ACE is an exception (Golding?), as is Persell & Wenglinsky’s study of the civic engagement of students at different types of colleges (reference). Barry Golding has examined the value of using network mapping in adult education and learning community settings to conceptualise discontinuities in relationships between communities and organisations in a particular region (Golding?). Persell and Weglinsky found that type of institution attended had an impact on civic engagement, with students attending for-profits less likely to vote or participate in political processes than community college students.

4. Directions for further investigation

Taking the definition of social capital as networks and norms, clearly education has a role in the creation of both. The relationships formed at school and through other forms of education are important for immediate social support and for linking to institutional resources. At the same time, the educational process forms ideology, habits, behaviours and models of cooperation and conflict.

I would suggest a number of directions for further investigation of the relationship between education and social capital.

Further exploration of Dewey’s work and its relationship to social capital, in particular Bourdieu. There is an interesting link between Bourdieu and Dewey. (Perhaps also tracking back to Durkheim).

Extension to other sectors of education. Bourdieu has written extensively on universities eg (Bourdieu and Collier 1988), but this work is begging to be updated in light the perceived “crisis” in the higher education field.

More scope for Bourdieuvian analysis using field theory- perhaps taking the lead from media studies in considering the boundaries between fields and meta-capital.

Questioning of the dark side of social capital in education – focus away from the “problems” of lack of social capital to the problems associated with too much of it in the wrong hands. Related to this, the idea of sympathy – mutual understanding (taking up Farr’s suggestion)

More investigation of institutional properties which help/hinder social capital.

My interest: extending bourdieu’s work by looking at the interplay of cultural capital and social capital in the field of higher education, and the potential for HE to create links and openings to other fields – “bridging” rather than “bonding” social capital.

This is where we return to the current day Lyda Hanifans seeking to remake education to serve social ends.

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