Skip to main content

Social Capital

Social Capital




In a broad and nonessentialist sense, social capital means that the relations humans enter into are a potential source of utility and benefit for them. However, the concept of social capital is perceived in divergent ways with a plurality of approaches and empirical operationalizations. Unfortunately, there is little discussion among dissenting viewpoints.

After an earlier emergence in the work of Lydia Hanifan (1916) or Jane Jacobs (1961), the term social capital resurfaced in the 1970s in the work of economist Glenn Loury. For Loury, the social context in which one finds oneself embedded strongly conditions ones achievement. This is profoundly evident whenever social divisions that structure inequalities, such as race or class, are at play. In such a context, Loury describes social capital as the impact of ones own social position, which acts to further or impede the acquisition of human capital (the market-valued assets of education and skills) (Loury 1977, pp. 175-176).


Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was the first to conceptualize social capital in an explicitly sociological manner that is at variance with Lourys view. For Bourdieu, capital consists of accumulated human labor that either assumes a distinct material form or an integrated form as part of an objective or subjective structure, the latter being the predispositions of mind and body (Bourdieu 2001, p. 98). Bourdieu also understands capital in the sense of power and resources (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).

Bourdieu is concerned with three forms of capital: economic, cultural, and social, each operating in a different field. Among them, social capital, which neither derives from nor is independent of the other forms, comprises social responsibilities, connections, or linkages, and under certain circumstances is convertible into economic capital. Bourdieu also considers the family to be a basic source of social capital, mainly found among the socially powerful in the upper middle class or haute bourgeoisie ; the ideal-typical institutionalized form of social capital is the nobility title (Bourdieu 2001, p. 98). By contrast, the lower social strata do not possess capital, including social capital (Bourdieu 1986).

Social capital is formed, more or less consciously, via integration into networks. Unlike economic capital, social capital has no specific material form. It is also characterized by a certain indeterminacy, so that there can be, for example, a residual sense of unspecified obligation. Social capital is, in a sense, suspended in midair, like social structures. This, according to Bourdieu, is an inevitable dimension of social capital. If it were clear and specific, it would simply be a series of ordinary nonmarket transactions. Social capital, according to Bourdieu, is the sum of active or potential resources that are connected through the possession of a network of permanent relations of mutual acquaintance and recognition, which are more or less institutionalized, or, in other words, with the inclusion into a group (Bourdieu 1994, p. 90). Participation in a group provides each member with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a credential that entitles them to credit in the various senses of the word (Bourdieu 2001, p. 103). Importantly, the agent of action is the separate individual member of the group.

Transactions between group members require a minimum degree of homogeneity, and the profits that accrue from membership form the basis of the solidarity that makes such transactions possible. Bourdieu clearly holds that the reproduction of social capital requires a continuous effort of sociability and continual repeated contacts during which mutual recognition by group members is confirmed in order to sustain group cohesion (Bourdieu 2001, p. 104).

For his part, while studying school failure and aiming at the reinforcement of human capital, James Coleman (1926-1995) came to regard social capital as a means of support. In particular, he claims that social capital strengthens students school and university performance and, therefore, the generation of human capital. This view is much in line with Lourys conceptualization of social capital, yet here social capital is explicitly a positive and enhanceable quality (Coleman and Hoffer 1987; Coleman 1988).

Coleman uses this notion of social capital in connection with other forms of capital, such as economic-financial, natural, and human capital. Specifically, social capital results from changes that take place between individuals, facilitating social action (Coleman 1990, p. 302).

Coleman defines social capital on the basis of its function, as a range of entities with two common attributes: These entities are all aspects of social structures, and they all facilitate certain actions within structures, by individual or collective agents (Coleman 1988, p. S98). Social capital may assume three forms: obligations and expectations, which depend on trustworthiness of the social environment, information-flow capability of the social structure, and norms accompanied by sanctions (p. S119). Coleman, like Bourdieu, stresses the nonconcrete, nonmaterial, and indefinite character of social capital as compared to other forms of capital. However, in contradistinction to Bourdieu, he notes that unlike other forms of capital, social capital is a public good, because those who generate social capital enjoy only a limited part of its benefits (pp. S116S118). Social capital is not solely a property or benefit of the individual agent who generates it, but also of other individuals, as well as of the community. Because social capital is embedded within the social context, certain characteristics of social relations can facilitate its appearance, including trust and reciprocity among the members of the inner-group, effective normative regulations, and open social structures (pp. S102S105, S106).

It is important to distinguish resources from the ability to acquire them, through participation in networks or social structures. This distinction is clear in Bourdieu, but vague in Coleman. By equating social capital with the resources through which it is acquired, or which it creates, one is led toward tautology and a vicious circle. In this sense, it can be argued that Colemans conceptualization gets blurred and eventually loses much of its value.


Parallel to the ongoing sociological interest in social capital, this notion has also been adopted by other disciplines. Political scientist Robert Putnam, for example, has developed his ideas in relation to social capital especially. He points out that social capital is formed by features of [social organizations, or ] social life networks, norms, and trustthat enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives (Putnam 1995, pp. 664-665, emphasis added; Putnam 1993, p. 67).

Putman broadens the notion of social capital from the level of individual and collective actors to the level of organizations and communities (Wollebaek and Selle 2002, p. 34; Portes 2000), and from there to social life as a whole. The latter includes cities, regions, and even entire countries. Coleman had already attempted such an expansion of meaning, as we have seen. However, the problem of silence relating to the supposedly neutral character of horizontal ties, raised in sociological discussions of Colemans definition of social capital, cannot be tolerated in Putnams conceptual transference. In the neopluralistic participatory context that the latter has adopted, differences in economic, social, or other forms of power do not raise a significant issue; hence what prevails is participation as such and the extent to which it appears.

Participatory attitudes within the context of community networks seem to generate additional forms of social capital. Thus, social capital can do the bonding, bridging, or even linking of social groups. This means, respectively, forming ties between people in similar situations, bringing together people in different situations who belong to different social groups (Svendsen 2006), and mustering heterogeneous social groups together (Woolcock 2001). All result in synergies that effect positive outcomes in virtually all fronts. Undoubtedly, in this way networks appear to be vehicles of social capital.

In fact, in Putnams approach, social capital stock is equal to the participatory attitude in a community. Specifically, social capital is not researched directly, but instead proxies are used: Social capital is operationalized through indices such as, primarily, the degree of participation in volunteer organizations (Welzel et al. 2005, p. 121); trust toward authorities or others; the reading of newspapers, which reflects an interest in public affairs; and similar indices that mostly apply to the mezzo- and macro-levels (Putnam 2000). So, the key in researching social capital is the keenness of participation, or more broadly civic values or the ethos of civicness from which willingness to participate originates.

Attempts at deconstruction and critical recomposition of social capital have been made by sociologist Alejandro Portes and his associates, among others. Portes and Julia Sensenbrenner (1993) suggest a clear distinction between the sources of social capital and the results of its action. They recognize four sources from which social capital originates: (1) internalization of values; (2) transactions of a reciprocal character; (3) forms of collective solidarity; and (4) the trust imposed by negative or positive sanctions. It is accepted that the sources of social capital are embedded in the motives of network/group members to provide resources. These include consummatory motives, and those cultivated within the community, with solidarity strikes being a typical case. They may also originate from instrumental motives involving the expectation of reciprocity and trust (e.g., the sponsor is secured against fraud) (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993; Portes 1998, p. 8).

The various sources of social capital lead to its composite formation so that social capital is the ability to secure benefits via participation in networks and other social structures (Portes 1998, p. 6). Of course, the idea that interconnections favor individual upward mobility may also be found in writers like Mark Granovetter (1973, 1983) who avoid the term social capital.

While Bourdieu does not take an interest in whether the effects of social capital are positive or negative, in Colemans work, social capital is presented as exerting a fundamentally positive social influence, especially in the case of social problems tackled through the effectiveness of social capital. For Putnam too, social capital is a blessing that reduces anomie, promotes democracy, and produces wealth. However, Portes and his associates reject this all-positive account of social capital and its effects as one-dimensional, while stressing a number of negative aspects: Of prime importance is the exclusion of non-members, and the excessive demands made upon rich members of the social capital network (or group) for compliance, uncensored acceptance, and so forth.

Portess interventions offer a more balanced understanding of social capital and its potential. The notion is not rejected but rationalized, with emphasis on the need to systematically study the effects of social capital and avoid attributing irrelevant, accidental, or spurious effects to it (Portes 1998, 2000; Portes and Landolt 2000; Portes and Mooney 2002). This perception has led to conceptualizations of social capital more akin to the micro-level that focus on the individuals relationships to her or his network of social connections and the benefits and resources she or he may muster. Such approaches tend to restrict the agentic impact, even if they give a place to it, while underlying that of social structure (Lin 2000, 2001). In such explorations, which tend to utilize qualitative methods, one of the main concerns is to decipher causality in generating and activating social capital (Mouw 2005; Smith 2003).

The wider promotion of the contentious notion of social capital, and the strengthening and broadening of its usage, mainly took place through the work of Putnam, who came to influence key politicians, including U.S. president Bill Clinton, plus a series of international organizations like the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the European Union. At the same time, social capital has come to be used in ever-increasing ways as a recipe for non-economic solutions to social problems (Halpern 2005). The overextension of its meaning and the consequent slackening of its application have led to contestation about its true content. It now appears that the notion of social capital has, to a significant extent, been taken over by agents of ideological and political intervention (Koniordos 2006). However, the social capital notion is certainly of social-scientific interest if its use is suitably restricted to what it may substantively explain.

SEE ALSO Authority; Bourdieu, Pierre; Conformity; Ethnic Enclave; Ethnocentrism; Networks; Networks, Communication; Pluralism; Putnam, Robert; Solidarity; Trust


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994. Social Capital: Preliminary Notes. In P. Bourdieu: Sociological Texts, ed. Nikos Panagiotopoulos, 91-95. Athens: Delfini (in Greek).

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2001. Forms of Capital. In The Sociology of Economic Life, eds. Mark Granovetter and Richard Swedberg, 96-111. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Coleman, James S. 1988. Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology 94: S95S120.

Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coleman, James S., and Thomas Hoffer. 1987. Public and Private Schools: The Impact of Community. New York: Basic Books.

Granovetter, Mark. 1973. The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78 (6): 1360-1380.

Granovetter, Mark. 1983. The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. Sociological Theory 1: 201-233.

Halpern, David. 2005. Social Capital. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Koniordos, Sokratis M. 2006. Social Capital: Between Theoretical Clarity and Confusion. Science and Society 16 (Spring-Summer): 1-38 (in Greek).

Lin, Nan. 2000. Inequality in Social Capital. Contemporary Sociology 29 (6): 785-795.

Lin, Nan. 2001. Building a Network Theory of Social Capital. In Social Capital: Theory and Research, eds. Nan Lin, Karen Cook, and Ronald Burt, 3-31. New York: de Gruyter.

Loury, Glenn C. 1977. A Dynamic Theory of Racial Income Differences. In Women, Minorities, and Employment Discrimination, eds. Phyllis A. Wallace and Annette LaMond, 153-186. Lexington, MA: Heath.

Mouw, Ted. 2005. Social Capital and Finding A Job: Do Contacts Matter? American Sociological Review 68: 868-898.

Parkin, Frank. 1978. Class Inequality and Political Order. London: MacGibbon & Kee.

Portes, Alejandro. 1998. Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 24: 1-24.

Portes, Alejandro. 2000. The Two Meanings of Social Capital. Sociological Forum 15: 1-12.

Portes, Alejandro, and Patricia Landolt. 2000. Social Capital: Promise and Pitfalls of Its Role in Development. Journal of Latin American Studies 32: 529-547.

Portes, Alejandro, and Margarita Mooney. 2002. Social Capital and Community Development. In The New Economic Sociology: Developments in an Emerging Field, eds. Mauro F. Guillén et al., 303-329. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Portes, Alejandro, and Julia Sensenbrenner. 1993. Embeddedness and Immigration: Notes on the Social Determinants of Economic Action. American Journal of Sociology 98 (6): 1320-1350.

Putnam, Robert D., with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 1995. Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America. Political Science and Politics 28: 664-683.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone.

Smith, Sandra S. 2003. Dont Put My Name On It: Social Capital Activation and Job-Finding Assistance among Black Urban Poor. American Journal of Sociology 111 (1): 1-57.

Svendsen, Gunnar L. H. 2006. Studying Social Capital in Situ : A Qualitative Approach. Theory and Society 35: 39-70.

Welzel, Christian, Ronald Inglehart, and Franziska Deutsch. 2005. Social Capital, Voluntary Associations, and Collective Action: Which Aspects of Social Capital Have the Greatest Civic Payoff? Journal of Civil Society 1 (2): 121-146.

Wollebaek, Dag, and Per Selle. 2002. Does Participation in Voluntary Associations Contribute to Social Capital? The Impact of Intensity, Scope, and Type. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 31 (1): 32-61.

Woolcock, Michael. 2001. The Place of Social Capital in Understanding Social and Economic Outcomes. Canadian Journal of Policy Research 2 (1): 65-88.

Sokratis M. Koniordos

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Capital." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 27 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Social Capital." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (April 27, 2017).

"Social Capital." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from

Social Capital


The term social capital first began to be defined in the 1970s and remained largely restricted to the academic world of the social sciences until the 1990s, when it suddenly emerged as a central element in public discussions and policy debates about the quality of civic culture in Western nations, especially the United States of America. At the same time it also gained a place of prominence in discussions of political and economic "development" in the non-Western world by international agencies such as the World Bank. Despite this rapid ascentbecoming a key analytical concept used by academics (primarily sociologists, political scientists, and economists, but also anthropologists and historians), government policy planners, and international officials in development agencies within less than a generationa firm definition of the term has not yet emerged, which is not surprising given that what it seeks to describe is largely intangible, diffuse, and elusive. As a result there has been a proliferation of usages, which has weakened the conceptual cogency of the term.

Broadly defined, what most authors mean in the early twenty-first century, when they write of social capital are social networks of cooperation in which people invest and from which they may ultimately derive benefits. According to most contemporary theorists of the concept, the three most important diagnostic features of such networks are social interaction, civic trust, and normative behavior.

Social capital is a theoretical concept rather than a clearly tangible phenomenon. Interaction, trust, and norms are observable and even measurable phenomena, whereas social capital is not itself perceptible, and hence difficult to define. Nevertheless, the first references to the term (as opposed to a defined concept) of social capital were observational rather than theoretical.

Most studies trace the first use of the term to a 1916 academic study by Lyda Judson Hanifan, a school supervisor, on the deterioration of civic culture in rural West Virginia. The next and perhaps most influential use of the idea came with Jane Jacobs's 1961 study of the decline of American cities, a study that was based on her close observations of the changing nature of urban communities in New York City. Both authors called attention to the features and benefits of close social communities, and hence the need to preserve them.

It was not until the 1970s that the idea began to attract theoretical attention in the academic world; elements of the theory of social capital predate these attempts at definition, having been traced back to the idea of, among others, Jeremy Bentham (17481832), James Mill (17731836), Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), Karl Marx (18181883), Max Weber (18641920), Georg Simmel (18581918), John Dewey (18591952), and Emile Durkheim (18581917). It is widely accepted that the three most important proponents of the concept of social capital have been the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu (19302002) and two American social scientists, the sociologist James Coleman and the political scientist David Putnam. Their definitions of the concept, which vary considerably, usefully summarize a range of analytical and definitional perspectives.

Bourdieu's conceptualization of social capital, which owed nothing to the work of Hanifan and Jacobs, came out of his understanding of the workings of cultural capital among the upper classes of French society. He was interested in elucidating disguised or invisible forms of capital that were deployed by elites to maintain social inequality. He saw the nonmaterial exchanges inherent in social relationships as producing resources that members of elites drew upon to maintain their positions within the existing social structure. This view of social capital was very hierarchical and exclusive in its conceptualization, whereas Coleman's understanding of social capital was egalitarian and benign. His interest in social capital came out of his research on the importance of family and community in educational results. He found that familial and community resources, which he defined as social capital, were sufficiently powerful to compensate for economic disadvantages. For Coleman, whose definition of social capital drew on the concept of human capital that had been current in economics for over two decades, not only individuals benefited from social capital, but also society as a whole.

The highly influential definition of the social capital put forward by Putnam in the 1990s originated in his examination of the differences in civic engagement in northern and southern Italy; he used the concept to explain the more successful integration of civil society and the state in the north, which he traced back to medieval guilds. He went on to apply the concept of social capital to his study of civic culture in the United States; in an article published in 1995, which anticipated and summarized the argument of his book Bowling Alone, he brought the concept of social capital into the world of political debate and the popular media, first in the United States and then internationally.

Putnam looked at social capital primarily in terms of its benefits to society rather than the individual. He argued that there was a direct correlation between the quality of civic culture and levels of poverty, violence, and democracy. The diagnosis became popular in no small part because it suggested noneconomic solutions to social problems: increase social capital and solve a range of social problems. However, there was at least one major flaw in such reasoning: Putnam had failed to consider the role of economics adequately in the deterioration of civic culture in the first instance. Furthermore, as critics of Putnam, such as Alejandro Portes, have noted, social capital can itself lead to social problems, whether in the form of organized crime associations, prostitution and gambling rings, or youth gangs. These negative forms of social capital are much different than newspaper readership, voluntary associations, and political trust, which were the positive forms Putnam examined.

Social capital has been appealing to both conservatives, who use it to argue for the devolution of former governmental responsibilities onto society, as well as to liberals, who see it as a means for the state to deal directly with the causes of social problems rather than merely their symptoms.

Despite the divergent ideological lessons drawn from it, there is wide agreement about the importance of the concept in both academic and public policy circles today. However, there is no consensus on how to measure it. Unlike conventional forms of capital, social capital is primarily relational rather than material. Some economists have been skeptical about the cogency of the concept as well as about the ability of proponents of social capital to arrive at quantifiable measures. Measuring social capital has been a particularly important task because of the prominent role the concept has assumed in discourses concerning economic development in the non-Western world, where the emphasis is not on civic culture but directly on amelioration of economic and political conditions.

By bringing the social to the forefront of discussions of economic and political conditions, social capital has had an important impact on the thinking of institutions such as the World Bank about development in the non-Western world. But the application of the concept beyond the West has raised a series of important questions, the central one of which is its relationship between society and the state. Some forms of social capital have been seen as inimical to economic and political development; where states have collapsed or become oppressive and economies deteriorated, and where accordingly survival strategies have heightened the importance of social capital, the symptoms have been read as a cause of continuing economic and political failure. Many forms of social capital that appear to be negative in the context of the West, must be understood within the much different historical origins and more problematic dynamics of the relationship between state and society in many parts of the non-Western world.

Both within the West and for the non-Western world, the idea of social capital offers new ways of thinking about social problems. In particular, it offers the possibility of integrating our understandings of the social and economic; however, if not properly integrated there is a real danger of the latter merely colonizing the former, thereby reducing social interactions to sets of instrumental strategies and rational calculations. Simply because it is a relatively recent concept, it requires further elaboration and refinement, which it is already beginning to attract. Even more nuanced insights will result.

See also Cultural Capital ; Human Capital .


Bourdieu, Pierre. "Le capital social: notes provisoires." Actes de la recherché en sciences socials (1980): 23.

."The Forms of Capital." In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Coleman, James S. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94 (1988): 95120.

Collier, Paul. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

. "Social Capital and Poverty: A Microeconomic Perspective." In The Role of Social Capital in Development: An Empirical Assessment, edited by Christiaan Grootaert and Thierry van Bastelaer. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Dasgupta, Partha, and Ismail Serageldin, eds. Social Capital: A Multifaceted Perspective. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2000.

Farr, James. "Social Capital: A Conceptual History." Political Theory 31, no. 10 (2003): 128.

Field, John. Social Capital. London: Routledge, 2003.

Hanifan, Lyda Judson. The Community Center. Boston: Silver Burdett, 1920.

. "The Rural School Community Center." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 67 (1916): 130138.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Portes, Alejandro. "Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology." Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 124.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Rotberg, Robert I. "Social Capital and Political Culture in Africa, America, Australasia, and Europe." Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29, 3 (1999): 339356. Introduction to two special issues of JIH : 29, no. 3 (1999), and 29, no. 4 (2000).

Woolcock, Michael. "Social Capital and Economic Development: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis and Policy Framework." Theory and Society 27, no. 2 (1998): 151208.

Sean Hawkins

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Capital." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 27 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Social Capital." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (April 27, 2017).

"Social Capital." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from

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.

See also: Community Education; Family, School, and Community Connections; Parental Involvement in Education; Social Cohesion and Education.


Coleman, James S. 1988. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94 (supplement):95120.

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):171189.

Ho, Sui Chu, and Willms, J. Douglas. 1996. "Effects of Parental Involvement on Eighth-Grade Achievement." Sociology of Education 69 (2):126141.

Paxton, Pamela. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Education 105 (1):88127.

Sampson, Robert J.;Morenoff, Jeffrey D.; and Earls, Felton. 1999. "Beyond Social Capital: Spatial Dynamics of Collective Efficacy for Children." American Sociological Review 64:633660.

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):225249.

Sui Chu Esther Ho

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Capital and Education." Encyclopedia of Education. . 27 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Social Capital and Education." Encyclopedia of Education. . (April 27, 2017).

"Social Capital and Education." Encyclopedia of Education. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from

social capital

social capital A concept devised by James Coleman, used to describe the types of relations that exist between individuals as located within both families and communities, and which are said to exert a strong influence on levels of educational achievement (see James S. Coleman and and Thomas Hoffer , Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities, 1987
). The concept parallels those of physical and human capital in economics. Coleman and Hoffer argued that deficiencies in social capital–such as would follow from single-parenthood, decreased parental involvement with the child or with family activities, and low levels of interaction between adults and especially parents in local communities–were detrimental to development in adolescence.

Coleman maintained that ‘the social capital for a young person's development resides in the functional community, the actual social relationships that exist among parents, in the closure exhibited by this structure of relations, and in the parent's relations with the institutions of the community. Part of that social capital is the set of norms that develop in communities with a high degree of closure’. Closed networks, giving rise to functional communities, foster among children living therein such things as conformity to school norms, an interest in academic matters, and avoidance of deviance. Lack of interaction between parents and children, and between parents and other adults, fosters open networks, lack of communication, lack of adherence to and enforcement of norms and of family control, all of which reduces the probability of building up human capital and increases opportunities for deviant behaviour.

It has been suggested that this argument represents a significant shift in Coleman's thinking about academic socialization from his earlier work. In his classic The Adolescent Society (1961), Coleman stresses the importance for adolescence and educational achievement of the youth cultures within schools, whereas the concept of social capital emphasized the out-of-school influence of the family as it interacts with the larger community. However, it has also been observed that it is possible to marry the two accounts, by considering the possibility that social capital (lack of parental monitoring, the decision to reside in particular neighbourhoods, and to establish ties with some but not other types of parents and institutions in the local community) exerts an indirect influence on peer-group selection among children; that is, that social capital is an indirect determinant of the subcultures in which young people become involved, both in the community and at school.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"social capital." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 27 Apr. 2017 <>.

"social capital." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (April 27, 2017).

"social capital." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from