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Social Capital and Education

Social capital refers to the intangible resources embedded within interpersonal relationships or social institutions. Social capital can exist in three major forms: as obligations and expectations, as information channels, and as social norms. Obligations and expectations can be conceived of as a "credit slip" that people hold, and that can be cashed when necessary. Information channels provide appropriate information as an important basis for action. Social norms provide the criteria for rewarding or sanctioning individual actions.

In the context of education, social capital in the forms of parental expectations, obligations, and social networks that exist within the family, school, and community are important for student success. These variations in academic success can be attributed to parents' expectations and obligations for educating their children; to the network and connections between families whom the school serves; to the disciplinary and academic climate at school; and to the cultural norms and values that promote student efforts. The concept of social capital is a useful theoretical construct for explaining the disparities in students' educational performance among different nations.

In the 1980s James Coleman developed the concept of social capital to conceptualize social patterns and processes that contribute to the ethnic disparities of student achievement. He argued that the educational expectation, norms, and obligations that exist within a family or a community are important social capital that can influence the level of parental involvement and investment, which in turn affect academic success.

At the family level, parents' cultural capital and financial capital become available to the child only if the social connection between the child and the parents is sufficiently strong. Youths from single-parent families or with larger numbers of siblings are more likely to drop out of high school because of the eroded social capital associated with the nontraditional family structure. As new structures of the household in modern society become more prevalent, many linkages and activities that provided social capital for the next generation are no longer present, and their absence may be detrimental to children's learning.

At the institutional level, disciplinary climate and academic norms established by the school community and the mutual trust between home and school are major forms of social capital. These forms of social capital are found to contribute to student learning outcomes in East Asian countries such as Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong. They have been shown to have a significant impact, not only on creating a learning and caring school climate, but also on improving the quality of schooling and reducing inequality of learning outcomes between social-class groups.

In summation, the concept of social capital is a useful tool for understanding differences among student learning outcomes. Nations with high stocks of social capital are more likely to produce students with better academic performance than nations with low stocks. However, studies by Pamela Paxton, and Michael Woolcock and Deepa Narayan, have noted that high levels of social capital could restrict individual growth and societal development. Further analysis is needed to identify the potential negative impact of high social capital.


COLEMAN, JAMES S. 1988. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94 (supplement):95–120.

HO, SUI CHU. 2000. "The Nature and Impact of Social Capital in Three Asian Education Systems: Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong." International Journal of Educational Policy: Research and Practices 1 (2):171–189.

HO, SUI CHU, and WILLMS, J. DOUGLAS. 1996. "Effects of Parental Involvement on Eighth-Grade Achievement." Sociology of Education 69 (2):126–141.

PAXTON, PAMELA. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Education 105 (1):88–127.

SAMPSON, ROBERT J.;MORENOFF, JEFFREY D.; and EARLS, FELTON. 1999. "Beyond Social Capital: Spatial Dynamics of Collective Efficacy for Children." American Sociological Review 64:633–660.

STEVENSON, HAROLD W., and STIGLER, JAMES W. 1992. The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

WOOLCOCK, MICHAEL, and NARAYAN, DEEPA. 2000. "Social Capital: Implications for Development Theory, Research, and Policy." The World Bank Research Observer 15 (2):225–249.


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