Why Schools Should Focus on Social Capital Development — Not Just Skills

column | Student Success

Why Schools Should Focus on Social Capital Development — Not Just Skills

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Oct 16, 2023

Why Schools Should Focus on Social Capital Development — Not Just Skills

The word “meritocracy” has reached new heights, becoming ubiquitous in everyday conversation and in debates about identity politics. The concept is seemingly simple: Strong ability yields well-earned roles in the workforce. And yet, in the tech sector where I work, I bear witness to a world of gender and racial homogeneity that fails to represent the gender and racial heterogeneity of the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latino/Hispanic workers represent just 5.7 percent of software developers, even though they are 18.5 percent of the total U.S. workforce. And although African American/Black workers account for only 5.7 percent of software developers, they make up about 12.6 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Perhaps … it’s not just about the skills we bring to the table. We live in a world where who you know can matter, but also where systems of power benefit those with certain networks and access to resources, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, father of social capital theory, explained decades ago. Those with social capital may wield it to maintain power and reinforce authority, often at the expense of those with less.

Back in 2019, I took to an EdSurge column to share my opinion — a sounding call for more attention to be paid to the role social capital plays in education and workforce training. But following that, I decided to take three years and immerse myself in the study of social capital research for my doctoral dissertation. Having conducted much more research, including my own mixed-method study, I’m more convinced than ever: Schools need to focus more on social capital development.

Here’s a taste of why — and how.

What the Research Says About Social Capital

Bourdieu defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition.” In short, social capital theory implies that those with larger and stronger networks, relationships and interpersonal trust excel at achieving their goals. How? Through resources made available by connections — resources that can be mobilized through ties in the networks.

Earlier in the 2000s, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development described social capital as a space requiring further investigation to help students pursue higher education and careers. More recently, more and more scholars, from Bram Lancee to Matloob Piracha, have tied the importance of social capital to improving labor market outcomes, arguing for increased focus on the relationship between “social relations” and “finding a job.” An analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, for example, found that young adults who found jobs through informal networks had higher wages relative to those who used more formal job searching and application techniques.

Interestingly enough, researchers in other sectors (including economics, public health and sociology) have explored similar theories and found that social capital can improve more than just access to higher education and job opportunities, as one might expect. Data from the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement Study, for example, showed that female students are more likely to take advanced courses when surrounded by other female peers with higher level math coursework experience. In this case, networks effectively nudge students to stretch themselves more academically than they might have otherwise.

What Educators Can Do

There are ample opportunities for educators to provide significant social capital development, specifically in the form of “institutional agents” and through access to the latest equipment and technologies.

Ricardo D. Stanton-Salazar (2011) describes “institutional agents” as non-kin, “high-status” individuals who can both increase motivation and access to resources. My research suggests that education programs should place more emphasis on developing these relationships with institutional agents — not only because of the motivation factor, but also because a single relationship can contribute multiple resources to a student’s life. An example might be a school bringing in local employers whose employees can mentor students, introducing them to new skills, resources, or experts related to their field of work.

In tandem, educators often have the ability to purchase or acquire materials that students do not have access to at home or otherwise. For example, computer science teachers and administrators may have the ability to use school budget money to purchase tech tools like robust computing devices, 3D printers, and state-of-the-art software; this is crucial to increasing students’ tech social capital, as it provides access to items outside of their everyday technical experience.

But most importantly, it is time for educators and researchers alike to study and attempt to measure social capital as thoroughly and consistently as we do content knowledge with exams like the SAT or STAAR. In many ways, certain industries — namely health, sociology, and economics — have set the tone for using social capital indices on both macro (group/community) and micro (individual) scales. But education just isn’t there yet.

Educators interested in learning more could consult the Search Institute, which has identified and created tools for measuring social capital. These include name generators, which prompt individuals to list the names of people they know or interact with in specific social contexts, and resource generators, which ask individuals to report what financial, informational or career resources they can access through their social network. Novel quantitative methods of assessing online social capital have also emerged, including social network analysis that assesses relationships and links between different individuals and/or groups. The Harvard Opportunity Insights organization, for example, created the “Social Capital Atlas,” an open access tool that analyzes Facebook relationships to explore “economic connectedness,” a theoretical predictor of economic mobility.

Using these tools might lead a teacher to adopt some of the instruments above, draft their own version of a social capital survey, and run that survey with students. It might lead a school to lead social capital data collection at the beginning and conclusion of the school year, emulating other formative assessments that take place in September and May to generate points of comparison. And it might lead a state education leader to integrate social capital theory into policymaking, such as providing more opportunities for school systems to acquire funding to put toward mentorship, job shadowing or externship programs.

Beware the Deficit Mindset

There is much power in social capital, both for entities trying to retain that power, a la an “old boys’ network” (Putnam, 2000), and for individuals seeking to progress and diversify homogeneous spaces or achieve their own career attainment.

But, there is one major trap educators should watch out for.

Researcher Tara J. Yosso published her seminal Race Ethnicity and Education article in 2005. In it, she calls out “deficit thinking” — a common misconception that racial minority students and families possess little to no cultural knowledge, skills or networks when entering into educational institutions.

Unfortunately, many social capital studies prior to the 2000s failed to 1) acknowledge that all individuals possess some form of social capital from the moment they are born, and 2) incorporate student voice in the exploration of defining social capital, further adding to the deficit lens. Some may incorporate qualitative interviews with students or student advisory groups, but these studies typically refrain from incorporating student perspectives into defining or quantifying social capital as students see it, in favor of fitting student perspectives into predefined descriptions or frameworks. This is a key miss.

For teachers and schools looking to adopt some of the instruments above, there is opportunity to remedy this. Co-designing surveys with students is one tactic for avoiding that deficit land mine.

We owe it to students, especially those from underrepresented groups, to provide them with just as many mechanisms for social capital development as we do for knowledge and skill attainment, through opportunities for growth and by validating their lived experiences.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up