Studies in Philosophy and Education

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 185–199 | Cite as

Function and Functional Explanation in Social Capital Theory: A Philosophical Appraisal

  • John Vorhaus


Social capital is frequently offered up as a variable to explain such educational outcomes as academic attainment, drop-out rates and cognitive development. Yet, despite its popularity amongst social scientists, social capital theory remains the object of some scepticism, particularly in respect of its explanatory ambitions. I provide an account of some explanatory options available to social capital theorists, focussing on the functions ascribed to social capital and on how these are used as explanatory variables in educational theory. Two of the most influential writers in this field are Coleman and Bourdieu. I explore their commonalities and differences, both in respect of their writing and in respect of some of the many theorists they have influenced. I argue that social capital theorists have made substantial progress in responding to sceptically minded critics, but that significant questions remain, especially about the success of the more ambitious explanatory variants as these apply to educational outcomes—functional explanation in particular. Functional explanation, and its association with Bourdieu, is discussed in ‘Bourdieu and functional explanation’; thereafter I discuss the more modest ambition of identifying the functions associated with social capital. In ‘Coleman, intergenerational closure and educational outcomes’ I show how Coleman provides resources for revealing how social structure features in social explanation in an educational context, and in ‘Inequality, class and ethnicity’ I suggest that some of the questions raised in his account are most satisfactorily responded to by educational theorists who adopt Bourdieu’s emphasis on social class and inequality.


Social capital Functions Explanation Inequality Social class Ethnicity 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of EducationUniversity of LondonLondonUK

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