Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Capital and Education

  • Veronika TašnerEmail author
  • Slavko Gaber
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_584-1


The basic idea of the concept of social capital embraces the importance of relations between actors in social space established as networks of the individuals in communities and society. Numerous and even ideologically different and contradicting conceptualizations agree that there are several reasons to acknowledge the importance of social networks that enable social ties and bring benefits to their members. Strong social networks as result of common beliefs, sentiments, values, and practices are, namely, supposed to generalize reciprocity and significantly strengthen social collaboration and coherence in contemporary plural and highly individualized and diversified democracies. Coherent networks promote social interaction (good faith, confidence); reduce the level of anomie, crime, etc.; and provide a productive arena for democratic participation of active citizens. As such, social capital is, in addition to economic capital and in combination with cultural capital and symbolic capital, a vital human asset related to the positioning of individuals in the communities and societies and is crucial for the regulation and functioning of contemporary society as a whole.

Historical Background

The term social capital was, according to Putnam (2000) coined in 1916 by Judson Hanifan, who used it, in line with the spirit of the time and as an upgrading of previously developed ideas of the need for “organic solidarity” in modern societies (Durkheim 1893/1997) to emphasize the importance of the networks of solidarity for the society.

Later, after WWII and in the times of post-war promising development in the directions of functioning representative democracy that struggled to placate Western societies in the form of the welfare society social contract, the concept was further developed step-by-step by Bourdieu (1980), Coleman (1988) and finally positioned as widely used by Putnam (2000). As such, it became one of the prominent, widely used sociological research tools conceptualizing the social fabric of the modern society. The concept from its very inception captures additionally accentuated attention and use during the crises societies face while encountering or producing important shifts of political, economic, and/or social structures that until the period in question represent the cohesion of the social order. The same goes hand in hand with the situations in which “new groups” claim their share of power/wealth, etc., or openly fight for hegemonic position in a nation or society. This is particularly so when they simultaneously claim a shift of the value systems and thus threat the very structure of social networks that till certain time presented the ties of the societies that are in transition. Such an “age of transition” is frequently accompanied by the threat of anomie (Durkheim 1897) and threatens to dissolve societies.

In line with authors including Dika and Singh (2002) and Hsung and Breiger (2009), we attribute the formation of the (modern) concept of social capital (as a totality of norms, values, and trust in organizations, classes, or communities) to Bourdieu, Coleman, and Putnam. Furthermore, it appears that Bourdieu and Coleman, each in his own way and in parallel, developed the conceptualization of social capital most commonly used in research in the field of education.

Bourdieu understands social capital to be an “aggregate of the actual or potential resources 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” (1997, p. 51). It is clear that Bourdieu’s conceptualizations, unlike Coleman’s, focus on structural constraints and unequal access to institutional resources, based on class, gender, and race. As Hsung and Breiger (2009) point out, Bourdieu highlights the fact that people with higher economic status establish a network with a higher specific gravity: with people who share a similar relationship to culture. Such networks can thus be understood as reproduction mechanisms of the collective class identity of the upper class and as the potential for members of a certain class to validate such connections as symbolic capital as well as economic capital.

The essence of social ties established as social capital is, therefore, the investment strategy of the individual or community in social networks. The above stressed is important to understand in particular in relation to education which is supposed to condition pupils and students for strategizing and through it both establish new connections and maintain already established ones. Our relations inside communities and in society are namely produced and are neither naturally given nor are they established once and for all. To the contrary, they are the product of an endless effort of individuals, groups (for example, teachers), and institutions which constitute networks that are supposed to produce and reproduce “lasting, useful relationships that can secure material or symbolic” individual and group profits. In other words, “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, […] implying durable obligations subjectively felt (feelings of gratitude, respect, friendship, etc.) or institutionally guaranteed (rights)” (Bourdieu 1997, p. 52).

Bourdieu demonstrates that social capital truly does count pointing to the fact that “individuals obtain very unequal profits from equivalent (economic or cultural) capital” (Bourdieu 1997, p. 56). To what degree this is so we see in the years of growing unemployment rates across the world, which are marked by the fact that young graduates with similar or the same degree reach significantly different opportunities for the conversion of their cultural capital in employment and via it in economic capital. Their success is to a significant level related to the degree of their ability to engage the networks of their groups of influence: families, alumni of elite schools, selected societies (clubs), etc.

While for Bourdieu, dividing lines related to the question of whether an individual will possess social capital and how much of it is significantly determined with relevant class origin, Coleman (1988) developed his conception as part of an attempt to present a rounded theory of society. As Field (2006) points out, Coleman created his theory on the background of the rational choice theory, which itself requires an explanation as to why societies in which individuals always follow behaviors that are most consistent with their personal (individual) interests nonetheless “manage to cooperate” (2006, p. 21). It seems that social capital provided Coleman with the resolution of the dilemma why humans choose to cooperate, even when their immediate interests seem best served by competition (see Field 2006). As such, his concept of social capital also enabled him to conceptualize accommodating social control norms in the society of prevailing individualist rationality.

At the end of the twentieth century and in the first years of the twenty-first century, prominent political theorist Robert Putnam provided a decisive step for social capital to become a publicly known and discussed topic. In his paper (1995) and later in his book entitled Bowling Alone (2000), he demonstrated that governability problems of large urban centers of the USA are to an important degree related to the significant decline of citizens’ participation in traditional civic organization and thus with the decline of social capital particularly after WWII. His book became a best seller and has been presented in a number of states around the world, translated into languages from Japanese, Chinese, to Estonian and Serbian, and it was read almost as a third culture literature. Putnam himself not only attained the position to give advice to influential politicians around the world but also became a welcome guest on talk shows, both of which promoted the idea of the importance of social capital for individual and collective wellbeing.

Social Capital and Education

Relating social capital to education, it seems plausible to claim that, in particular, mass basic public education in the second part of the nineteenth century was to an important degree response to the threats of the dissolution of traditional “mechanical” social solidarity. The rapid and profound restructuring of society caused by the combination of the rise of the industrial revolution, the division of labor, and growing demands for democracy required a reconsideration of the social ties of such a profoundly shifting society. Education of the wider population was seen to be necessary, while the working-class movement, which resulted from the class struggles confronting the ruling class of the owners of capital, demanded the right to vote and participation in the decision-making on who ruled the country. The need to cultivate the population and regulate new possibly organic solidarity (see Durkheim 1897) was also evident for the friends of democracy. Education was supposed from then on to incorporate in each human being common skills, knowledge, sentiments, norms, and values that are all at the core of the concept of social capital. Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology and of sociology of education, thus in the times after 1871 and in the instauration of functioning of public education in the realm of the Third Republic directly addressed public education with the demand to provide common norms, knowledge, and skills that would become part of habitus of each human being, irrespective of his or her origin. He strongly believed that the creation of common social ties, networks of collaboration, is the necessary basis, a sine qua non for productive education that should prepare each individual to take on his or her place in the social division of labor derived from her or his professional specialization.

Thus, it is plausible to claim that networks of individuals both at the level of smaller communities – from family onward – as well as at the level of society bring both public and private benefits due to and through proper education.

After such initial grounding of the conceptualization of social ties as a significant element of the society, in the 1960s, Bourdieu pointed to the fact that while education is arena of socialization of each citizen, it is far from provider of equal opportunities for all. Using his concepts developed and published in the 1980s, his research demonstrated that the capital that produced in education is unequal. In addition to the unequal cultural capital attained in education there are also significant differences in their potential for validation and conversion of the attained institutionalized cultural capital when it comes to the transition to the labor market. The above mentioned unequal potential is also unequal due to the immense inequalities in social capital students possess, again related to their social origin and success in strategizing in their efforts to establish themselves in influential networks.

Thus, the complex questions of equal opportunities and fairness of education emerged, and they continue to persist at the center of education discussions.

While in the focus of this discussion we find questions mainly addressing the question of “equal access versus equal attainment,” it seems that in recent years we can also see the rise of the importance of social capital. The reason behind this shift seems to reside in the fact that with almost universal access to education and with the “the second machine age” the need for wage labor is diminishing even among professions that require tertiary education. Thus, students entering tertiary education even while demonstrating both central characteristics that would in the past pave the way to a properly paid job (famous meritocracy criteria) have a significant risk of remaining unemployed for a long time (see Collins in Wallerstein et al. 2013). As such, education, even of relatively high quality, cannot provide a job guarantee and, with it, integration into the networks that in the past lead to a normal “well-off life” trajectory. Today, well-educated generations face a situation close to anomie and they desperately search for social capital that would enable them to validate acquired cultural capital. They have the feeling that they have been left aside. Because they do not belong to the privileged “white, male properly educated, and connected” minority, they are inclined to rebel and search for the new types of alliances that will help them to establish new type of social solidarity beyond enormous inequalities that threaten to destroy social ties of today (see Oxfam 2017).

The above-mentioned inequalities are combined with austerity measures that hobbled social institutions that (in the form of education, social care, health care, culture, etc.) enabled access of a large part of the population to safety nets. Points of security that even in the times of unemployment offered a kind of social integration that provided for basic freedom to relate to groups and society. Inequalities and mentioned neoliberal measures produce something that Wacquant (1998) calls “negative social capital,” which runs counter the very idea of social cohesion and brings to the forefront new challenges for individuals, communities, societies, as well for education.

In the meantime, education institutions around the world try with varying levels of success (see Scrivens and Smith 2013) to reduce the differences between the pupils and students of different origin in their ability to attain cultural capital on one hand and social capital on the other (see also Gemacher et al. 2006).


We are witnessing times of prolonged crises that indicates the beginning of a period of long age of transition in which modern societies (see Wallerstein et al. 2013) search for new forms of solidarity. It seems that reconsiderations of the ties that will be able to connect individuals and groups in wider social entities invite another round of conceptualizations of social networks and of social capital. These conceptualizations and practices should emerge from the processes that will not be to such a degree as in last two centuries dependent on the division of wage labor. New arenas establishing close relations beyond family ties enabling the formation of different communities (probably types of collaborative commons) seem to be the ones in which we will be engaged. Kindergartens and schools of all levels will have to play their role in searching for social innovations that would enable relatively dynamic and yet cooperative types of life of individuals and groups. We should bear in mind the fact that we are not the last generation that needs this planet to realize our dreams and wishes. Thus, it is safe to predict that the next few decades will invite us to reconsider the types of social ties and solidarity that could support the realization of wellbeing for 99% instead of 1% of population beyond the type established by profitmaking as the regulative idea. Through such reconsiderations, the further elaboration of the concept of social capital and upgrading and shifts of the role of education in enabling all human beings to lead their lives with dignity and in freedom will take place.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationLjubljana UniversityLjubljanaSlovenia
  2. 2.Faculty of Education/Centre for Education Policy StudiesLjubljana UniversityLjubljanaSlovenia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mitja Sardoč
    • 1
  1. 1.Educational Research InstituteLjubljanaSlovenia