Social Capital and Education: A Digest

What the concept of social capital has brought to the debate is, at bottom, an interest in the pay offs that arise from our relationships. The idea that social capital returns tangible benefits to its holders is obviously open to testing against evidence.

social capital

Social capital has had a wide range of application, and inevitably the level of research evidence is variable. To summarise the findings of a wide variety of research, it seems that in general, social capital broadly does what the theorists have claimed: to put it crudely, people who are able to draw on others for support are healthier than those who cannot; they are also happier and wealthier; their children do better at school, and their communities suffer less from anti-social behaviour.


Both Bourdieu and Coleman have influenced the sociology of education, Coleman’s work was grounded in the analysis of large scale survey data as well as his seminal paper on the contribution of social capital. Coleman drew on earlier work which looked at the performance of black children in American secondary schools. His findings attracted considerable attention, at least partly because they were unexpected.


Conventionally, sociologists generally expect that those children whose families are socially and economically well placed will tend to out perform those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.


Nor are they wrong to do so. Mostly, families’ cultural and economic capital are reflected in the human capital – that is, the skills, knowledge and qualifications – of their children. Coleman’s research shed light on some of the exceptions to this general rule. In a review of educational research into social capital, Sandra Dika and Kusum Singh found that much of the work conducted between 1990 and 1995 was characterized by a focus on minority ethnic populations.


“Research during the years shortly after the theoretical development of social capital was characterized by a focus on minority populations. The research designs included two secondary analyses of survey studies, a study of Southern students from HSB (Smith, Beaulieu, & Israel, 1992), a longitudinal study on children of teenage mothers (Furstenberg & Hughes, 1995), a survey study of Vietnamese students (Bankston & Zhou, 1995), a survey study with Mexican-origin youth (Valenzuela & Dornbusch, 1994), and a mixed-method study (surveys and semi-structured interviews) with Mexican-origin youth (Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch, 1995).”


Dika, S. L., & Singh, K. (2002). Applications of Social Capital in Educational Literature: A Critical Synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 72(1), 31–60.



Other scholars have undertaken a number of studies designed to test Coleman’s propositions, mostly using different data-sets and methods. Generally these have upheld Coleman’s findings with regard to both drop out rates and student achievement, confirming that the gains from Catholic schooling are particularly marked for urban minorities. Heckman and Neal have criticized Coleman for a failure to consider the effect of parental choices of school upon the performance of their children. More recent work has generally tended to confirm that social capital seems to be closely associated with educational outcomes.


Of fourteen studies reviewed by Dika and Singh that examined the relationship between social capital and educational achievement, the majority found a positive association between different 33 scores on both counts. Most of these studies considered achievement in relation to parental social capital; only one found an inverse relationship between achievement and two social capital indicators (parent-school involvement and parental monitoring of progress), while all the remainder were positive. While fewer studies were concerned with students’ own connections, these too found positive associations with achievement.


Research findings also suggest that social capital may provide a counter-weight to economic and social disadvantage. Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch found some support among Mexican origin students in Californian high schools, in that those with higher grades and aspirations generally had greater levels of social capital. The also found that accessing social capital was more important for bilingual students than for those whose main language was English, suggesting that possibly the Hispanic students were using social capital to compensate for shortfalls in other resources.


“we found that access to school personnel as sources of support is significantly enhanced by reported proficiency in English. More interesting, however, is that when English proficiency and SES were controlled for, Spanish use proved to have a positive and significant effect on school-based weak ties (access to personnel). Similar results surfaced when we examined the total number of nonfamily weak ties. Both English proficiency and Spanish use retained significant positive relations, net of other variables. Thus, our analyses provide support for the hypothesized relationship between language status and social capital, although with an added twist: Bilingualism may play a prominent role in determining access to social capital”

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 1995-apr vol. 68 issue. 2


James Coleman
James Coleman

As Coleman suggested, then, social capital may offer particularly significant educational resources for those who are otherwise relatively disadvantaged. Unlike Coleman, though, Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch found that students’ grades were particularly related to the number and range of weak ties, including those that people brought into contact with non-kin and non-Mexican origin members.


Coleman viewed social capital as centred primarily on the family, emphasising its role in the young per- son’s cognitive development as well as the degree of social control that it enabled. Coleman’s work can be criticized for focusing largely on one type of educational institution. Although he was very interested in adolescents’ relationships, for example, his investigations of social capital and education were limited to the school stages.


He paid little attention to later stages of the formal education system, and none to learning in informal settings. Bourdieu’s work has focused on the French higher education system is concerned with the development of social capital by academics intent on improving their relative position within the scholarly hierarchy rather than with the impact of social capital on students’ positions.


Hedoux did a much respected French study of adult learning in a mining community near Lille in the late 1970s showed that while levels of involvement in traditional societies and festivals were similar among participants and non-participants in education, the level of participation in education was much higher among people who were engaged in other, more modern areas of social life which brought them into contact with local notables’.


Excerpt translated from the French:

“The Collective Training Action (A.C.F.) is aimed at communities and offers non-professional training that participants opt to do in their leisure time. These specificities of the educational model suggest that participation in the A.C.F. also depends a lot on the degree of integration and participation in community life of participants. We also sought to know more about involvement in local societies , associations and groups, but also participation in local festivals and engagement with prominent citizens,  and people facilitating collective life.

Apart from participation in traditional societies and adherence to the most widespread practices in the milieu (home sales meetings, popular festivals , school events) for which they are on an equal footing with the non-public, A.C.F. participants prove to be more involved in other areas of social life and, when they are, they often find themselves playing active and responsible roles . This is the case for parish activity, associations, socio-cultural groups, local security groups, political parties

and trade unions, attendance at festivals and in particular at cultural and official events. This intensity of social participation also leads to more engagement with prominent citizens, among them teaching staff,  priests, mining engineers, and MPs and general councillors  (17). In conclusion, it seems that participation in the A.C.F. coincides, for many, with a more intense and diversified social life.”


Hedoux, C. (1982) ‘Des publics et des non-publics de la formation d’adultes: L’accès à l’Action Collective de Formation de Sallaumines-Noyelles-sous-Lens’, Revue française de sociologie, 23, 253–74


A recent study of lifelong learning (McClenaghan 2005; Field 2000) in Northern Ireland, shows that while a high level of social capital can reinforce the value placed on school attainment among young people, it can also provide a substitute for organised learning among adults, who may choose to acquire new skills and information informally from neighbours and kin rather than through a more structured course of education and training.



“the informal networks governing employment opportunities, wherein human capital in the form of education, training and skill may be secondary to other ‘insider’ conditions, may act to reduce individuals’ capacities to convert cultural capital into economic opportunity, thereby contradicting the social capital theorists’ arguments that high social capital enhances the efficiency of other forms of capital. This argument, of course, has wider applicability in that it also relates to the capacity of working-class people and other socially disadvantaged groups to convert academic qualifications into occupational opportunity in a highly competitive and flexible labour market where educational expansion has led to credential inflation…What makes our research findings particularly interesting is the apparent differential impact of social capital on the educational outcomes of children and the participation rates of adults in formal learning, often, though not always, in evidence within the context of a single community (educational outcomes among children and adult education participation rates in Northern Ireland vary by district). Field explains this paradox by the density and multiplicity of social ties associated with informal networks linked to employment placement and adult engagement in what he defines as ‘social movements’, both of which, he argues, generate sufficient ‘stocks of social capital’ which provide ‘a far more effective means’ than formal qualification, for the achievement of individual and organisational goals (Field, 1998, pp. 36–37). We take issue with these arguments on both empirical and conceptual grounds. Firstly, we have already demonstrated how social networks linked to employer recruitment practices serve to reproduce social inequality. There is quite considerable evidence from Northern Ireland which suggests that long-term unemployed people and communities with dense pockets of structural unemployment tend to have little access to such networks in any case.”

McClenaghan, P. (2000) ‘Social Capital: exploring the theoretical foundations of community development education’, British Educational Research Journal, 26, 5, 565–82.


“Social capital was strongly associated with a marked preference among adults for informal rather than formal learning. Strong claims on behalf of the voluntary and community sector – particularly in relation to women learners – went largely unchallenged in the focus groups (NI). In Northern Ireland particularly, dense local ties shape patterns of lifelong learning in a number of ways. They work to secure a remarkably high level of IE, but may have inhibited demand for formal adult education and training. At one level, this can be seen as an adherence to a relatively fixed and conservative view of the adult: people are, educationally, what they have achieved by the time they leave school; change and development are neither expected nor desired. Particularly in a divided community, in which access to desirable resources such as employment and security are widely regarded as a zero-sum game, such conservatism is a way of managing the risks that are inherent in any process of change. Scotland is not a divided community in the same way. There is a stronger commitment to meritocratic patterns promoted by education. On the other hand, Scottish people also exhibit tendencies to regard their paths as set once initial education is completed, at whatever stage that may be. Attachment to locality – an advantage when it comes to access to a local university – is a drawback when it inhibits mobility and adaptability (except for the highly qualified – see above, under migration). Social capital offers abundant opportunities for informal and incidental learning, but it also has a clear down side: it is inherently narrowing, in that it gives access only to the limited range of resources that happen to be available in any given locale, and familial forms of social capital can be particularly limiting and inward-looking, making it more difficult to build ‘bridging ties’ (Pahl and Spencer, 1997, p 102).”


Field, J. and Schuller, T. (2000) ‘Networks, Norms and Trust: explaining patterns of lifelong learning in Scotland and Northern Ireland’, in F. Coffield (ed.), Differing Visions of the Learning Society: research findings 2, Policy Press, Bristol.



Field reports that Hendry and Matley showed a similar pattern found among small firms in Britain, who appear to place a high emphasis on ‘learning by doing’, mentored more or less formally by role model figures such as parents, older siblings, friends and trusted older workers, and tend to avoid participation in formal training courses where the outcomes are hard to predict and justify.


There has also been some work on the influence of education on social capital. Partly, this is a simple product of proximity. School friends grow up together, and some individuals from each cohort stay in touch over time. University students in particular, especially those living away from home, had access to the widest networks and the most frequent contacts, which can be seen as the basis for the weak ties that would secure their future careers.


Emler and McNamara surveyed social content patterns among three groups of young Scots university students, further education students, full-time workers and unemployed people. It showed the ‘massive advantage of those in full time education as compared with the unemployed. The full time workers had fewer contacts than the full time students but had wider circles of friends than the unemployed. The connection between elite education pathways and membership of networks (neatly summarized in the ‘old school tie’ metaphor) is well known. It has, though, rarely been conceptualized in terms of social capital.


In broad terms, then, there is an emerging body of research which confirms the impact of social capital on human capital.


In general, the research suggests that the influence of social capital is a benign one, in that it is associated with higher levels of performance, and these appear to hold particularly true for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Lauglo’s words, social capital can ‘trump’ the disadvantages of social class and weak cultural capital. The evidence on education and social capital appears to point to the complexity of the relationships which might matter, suggesting that Coleman’s model of the family is not sufficiently hearty to carry the conceptual weight that he placed upon it.


Despite these qualifications and omissions, the connection between human capital and social capital has rightly been described by Glaeser et al as ‘one of the most robust empirical regularities in the social capital literature. Even if we do not yet fully understand this patter, we can conclude with some confidence that there is a close relationship between people’s social networks and their educational performance.


“Table 5 documents such a positive correlation between education and membership in organisations. This positive relationship is well known in the social capital literature; see for example, Helliwell and Putnam (1999). There are many interpretations of this evidence. For example, Nie et al. (1996) claim that relative status drives social interaction, and that education is a proxy for relative status. However, Helliwell and Putnam (1999) argue against this interpretation, pointing out that peer education increases social capital, holding individual education constant. Other explanations for the connection between social capital and human capital include the possibility that we learn social skills in school, or that individuals with high levels of human capital (e.g., good language and communication skills) simply get relatively high levels of utility out of social interaction. The connection between social capital and human capital is one of the most robust empirical regularities in the social capital literature.”

Glaeser, E. L., Laibson, D. and Sacerdote, B. (2002) ‘An Economic Approach to Social Capital’, The Economic Journal, 112, 437-58.


lifelong learning

Social Capital and Lifelong Learning

During the 1990s, a widespread debate opened over the idea and goal of a ‘learning society’. This debate was bound up with ideas for modernising and reforming education and training systems, so that they not only ensured that young people were able to enter adult life with a robust platform of skills and knowledge, but also that adults themselves were able to continue their learning throughout their lifespan.


At its narrowest, this simply involved the adjustment of existing systems and institutions so that they could better promote achievement and participation, particularly among the new cadres of highly skilled knowledge workers. A learning society is the precondition, it is said, of a high performance knowledge economy. Other, more generous visions of the learning society have emphasised the value of learning both in its own right and as a gateway to participation and full citizenship: a civilised society, in this view, is one that provides opportunities for learning for all, regardless of their age or life stage, as a right.


Even if we take a comparatively narrow definition of the learning society, the implications are radical. Even if limited to the formal arrangements by which any community ensures that its members gain the skills and knowledge required in and for a rapidly changing economy, this perspective has already generated considerable impetus for reform of education and training systems. Staid policy makers meeting in sober international government agencies like the European Co-operation and Development are concluding that the new economy demands a dramatically different education and training system from the one that exists today.


In a 1994 White Paper on economic competitiveness and growth, the European Commission went so far as to call for future educational reform initiatives to be based “on the concept of developing, generalising and systematising lifelong learning and continuing training”.


This is a radical ambition which has led their attention to lifewide as well as lifelong learning, that is, to the many different areas of life in which people continue to acquire and create new skills and knowledge throughout their lifespan. In practical terms, this has led to an interest in such areas as workplace learning, family learning and community learning, and in how they can be related to – or, in a telling word, ‘captured’ for – more formal systems for recognising knowledge and competences.


Recognition of the complexity and diffusion of lifelong and lifewide learning is in itself a challenging idea, and not one that is easily absorbed by more conventional education and training systems. However, the idea of a learning society also raises yet more radical, complicated and (I believe) interesting issues, which form the heart of this book. At their core is the question of whether some social arrangements might be better at promoting the acquisition of new skills and knowledge than others. Are there social values, and patterns of behaviour, that discourage us from getting the most out of education and training, not only as children but also in our adult lives ?


Are we more likely to learn and apply and create new knowledge in some types of social circumstances than others ? Do we learn more, and more valuably, from our social connections than from educational institutions ? Are there types of relationship that inhibit us from learning and creating knowledge, while others promote it ? And if any of this holds water, then what might we – policy makers, educationalists and the wider community – do about it ?


This is a very broad view of the learning society, and it takes us into largely uncharted territory. It rests, of course, on existing debates about the nature and scope of human learning. In particular, it shifts attention away from the conventional focus of educational theory and debate, which is on the formal instruction that takes place in designated institutions such as schools or colleges. It also takes a view of humans as being always both acquirers/transmitters of existing knowledge and creators of new knowledge. In both capacities – acquirers/ transmitters and constructors of knowledge – people find themselves benefiting from and constrained by social structures, practices and institutions.


Yet at the same time, people are constantly creating and recreating the structures, institutions and practices in which they find themselves; more- over, they constantly use and apply and create new information and understandings in their reshaping of social arrangements. While much of this process of change may be rather mundane in itself – buying something to wear, leaving a partner, finding another job, arguing with a parent – such everyday changes add up to a wider process of social transformation. Sociologists and educationalists will recognise where this line of argument comes from. Educationalists will spot that my view of learning is broadly a constructivist one, which recognises the ways in which people are constantly and actively engaged in creating meaning and new understandings as they go through their every day lives.


pierre bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu

Sociologists will know that my account of the interplay between people and social arrangements is part of a long tradition of interpretative thinking about structure and agency, and is partly influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of class and power, Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration, and the more recent work of Giddens and Ulrich Beck on what is often called ‘reflexive modernisation’.


The concept of learning is very different from the concept of education, and people’s active engagement in the wider social context is an extremely important aspect of the distinction between the two.


This fundamental dissimilarity is all too often downplayed or even ignored. While formal instruction is of considerable importance, both to individuals and to the wider community, it has to be set in the wider perspective of the infinite variety and range of different kinds of learning that people undertake. Much education is experienced as an external imposition, something that is a formal requirement, and much of whose content passes us by. Learning is a much more ubiquitous process by which individuals and communities actively seek to add to their capacity for attaining their goals.


It happens in a wide variety of settings, and across different areas of our lives. Only some of our learning takes place in educational settings, and even then what we learn is not necessarily what the teachers intend: at school we might learn how to deal with bullies, how to dispose of unwanted school dinners, or how to avoid the rules on chewing gum and mobile phones. All this happens alongside our success or failure in mastering French, memorising dates and conducting mildly amusing chemistry experiments. Learning is a fearsomely broad concept, with famously blurred boundaries: it is the active process by which we engage with our changing environment and try to take control of our lives. Such distinctions have been bread and butter in the adult education world for at least 50 years.


Many adult educators have tended to draw a clear contrast between formal learning (planned and organised instruction in designated institutions) on the one hand, and non-formal and informal learning on the other. The term ‘non-formal learning’ has usually been used to describe the education that is provided by bodies whose main purpose is something other than education, such as trade unions, voluntary associations and companies, to give but three examples. The term ‘informal learning’ is a very wide one, which can refer to all those forms of learning that take place as a result of an individual’s life experiences, rather than as a result of any intentional instruction by a third party. This encompasses a broad range from incidental learning, which is simply a by product of experience, to a more determined attempt by someone to teach themselves by such means as visiting a library, seeking advice or surfing the internet. Such attempts at definitional clarity are doomed to fail, given the all encompassing nature of learning as a process. Furthermore, many writers in the adult education tradition have tended not simply to distinguish between these broad types of learning, but to see them in a rather simplistic manner as directly opposed to one an- other; in fact, they are far more likely to be intermingled and to occur simultaneously alongside one another, in complex and hard-to-capture ways.


In addition to these different ways of analysing learning, we may also distinguish between different types of knowledge. Once more, the language of the learning society is linked with a shift away from the customary focus on formal and certified bodies of explicit and codified knowledge of the type tested in the examinations system. Educationalists increasingly recognise the importance of tacit knowledge, often embedded in people’s activities and relationships, of a kind that cannot easily be articulated and made explicit. Perhaps the most widely known analysis of this issue is the distinction between types of knowledge that was made in the the 1990s by Michael Gibbon and his collaborators. These authors draw a contrast between Mode 1 knowledge, which they describe as academic, rooted in single disciplines and based on abstract and codified generalisations, and Mode 2 knowledge, which they see as hybridised, created by teams from different disciplines and different sectors, generated by practical problems and capable of application, and often highly specific to certain contexts.


They believe that, while Mode 1 knowledge might continue to be important for the foreseeable future, Mode 2 is increasingly coming to dominate the new world of scientific production. Moreover, this is a form of knowledge that, these authors emphasise, is created by and through groups rather than by isolated individuals; its origin lies in collective attempts to solve problems, and its meaning is only realised through application in an organisational setting. The central argument of this book is that people’s social relationships play a vital part in their capacity for learning. I see this proposition as holding good whether we understand learning as simply concerned with the acquisition of skills and knowledge or, more generously, as also concerned with their creation.


This should not really be a surprising argument: after all, we are all affected by the attitudes of those whom we like and trust, and there is no obvious reason why this should not be just as true for skills and knowledge as any other area of life. Indeed, this claim is reasonably well established in respect of young people, and it would be hard to find an educationalist who denies that family and peer group help to shape attitudes towards schools and college. Albeit in a rather limited sense, then, the idea that social networks shape educational achievement among the young is widely accepted. The lines of this argument with respect to young people are fairly straightforward. If our friends and family admire academic achievement, then we are likely to share this outlook and will try to bring up our children accordingly. If we are surrounded by people who take pride in high quality craft skills, we are more likely to think of placing our children in apprenticeship.


This is not always such a straightforward relationship, as the cases of migrant communities suggests. If newcomer communities view the schools system as alien and oppressive, then they may be inclined to be suspicious of academic achievement within that system. Newcomers who see schooling as a means of overcoming economic disadvantage and social prejudice within the host society are more likely to place pressure on young people to achieve within the terms of that system. Yet, even if the picture is a complex one, it is widely agreed that people’s connections shape the educational experiences of the young. This book sets out to explore the possibility that social relationships can also affect the lifelong and lifewide learning undertaken by adults. In this analysis, I make considerable use of the growing debate over social capital.


Social capital may be defined as consisting of “social networks, the reciprocities that arise from them, and the value of these for achieving mutual goals…An idea that draws attention to the importance of social relationships and values such as trust in shaping broader attitudes and behaviour is clearly highly attractive to many people…There are three kinds of conceptual genealogy by which the origins of social capital might be mapped. The first limits itself to those writings which use the term explicitly; its scope is then defined by what emerges when ‘social capital’ is entered into the search engines available to us. The second takes the key elements, such as trust or networks, and reviews the literature relating to these. The third, most extensive, kind would include all the theories which seem to be related in some way to social capital, even though they make no explicit reference to the concept itself”


(Schuller, T., Baron, S., & Field, J. (2000). Social capital: A review and critique. In Baron et al. (Eds.) Social capital: Critical perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 1).


The concept is an increasingly familiar one in the social sciences, and it has been particularly influential in the study of such areas as school attainment, business innovation, community development and social inclusion. The notion emphasises the important role that people’s relationships, and the values that they share with their connections, play in enabling them to cooperate for mutual advantage. Of course, this is hardly a new idea: most people have noticed the way that connections – family, friends, even casual acquaintances and friends-of-friends – will help one another out. The late 19th century scholar Emile Durkheim, often praised as a founding father of sociology, believed that the complex multitude of connections between individuals helped to ensure that society was held together through what he called ‘organic solidarity’, which he contrasted with the habitual and hierarchical ‘mechanical solidarity’ of the feudal order.


This is a digest of John Field’s work.  John Field is Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Lifelong Learning, he serves as a Visiting Professor of Birkbeck College, University of London and chair of the Advisory Board for the ESRC. Social Capital and Education, John Field Social Capital; Key Ideas, Routledge, 1st edition (24 July 2003), ISBN-10: 0415257549, page 45