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  • Social Capital and Education:Implications for Student and School Performance
  • Gregory K. Plagens (bio)

Scholars seeking to understand why some students and schools perform better than others have suggested that social capital might be part of the explanation. Social capital in today's terms is argued to be an intangible resource that emerges—or fails to emerge—from social relations and social structure. Use of the term in this sense has been traced to John Dewey's writings in 1900 in The Elementary School Record. The idea that outcomes in education are conditioned by social interactions has intuitive appeal. Schools are more than learning factories where inputs are used to generate outputs; they are fundamentally social environments. Empirical evidence links social capital to higher student and school performance, but explanations of how and why the concept works as it does are varied and often vague. This article examines social capital as a concept and its link to student and school performance.

The language of social capital includes concepts that have been in use for decades. At different times social capital has been said to be about networks, associations, volunteering, trust, solidarity, sympathy, cooperation, reciprocity, belonging, norms, and relationships. Variety in the construct and its connection to many outcomes has some concerned that social capital is on its way to becoming all things to all people (Woolcock 1998) or that it has taken on a "circus-tent quality" (De Souza Briggs 1997). Despite variation in its use and roots reaching into education, economics, sociology and political science, there is some agreement about the basis for the concept. Its discovery, disappearance, and rediscovery, as well as the debate over its composition, make for an interesting story that today's educators may find valuable as they strive to address concerns about student and school performance.

Social Capital: Early References

As one might expect from a concept incorporating the word capital, social capital's first known use is in economics. James Farr (2004) traced its first appearances to [End Page 40] political economists Karl Marx (1867), Henry Sidgwick (1883), John Bates Clark (1885), Edward Bellamy (1897) and Alfred Marshall (1890). Sidgwick is quoted as writing about "capital from the social point of view" (130) when contrasting capital of individuals with that of the political community. Personal holdings or trade investments belonging to individuals were perceived differently from the "aggregate of tools, inventions, improvements in land" that were jointly held (Farr 2004, 22). Much of what was viewed as social capital by the nineteenth-century political economists, such as roads and bridges, is thought of today as physical capital.

Dewey's ideas about social capital emerged with his observations of economic and social changes occurring in America. Pastoral life was beginning its passage into history when Dewey began writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The traditional means by which families earned a living out of their households, and as a result passed along information about production within the household, were being replaced by the industrial process. He described this evolution and, more importantly, reflected on the resulting role for schools in his 1899 pamphlet The School and Society (which was later included in the book of the same name in 1900). Community life was deviating from its historical course and Dewey recognized many of the important implications of this change.

The seedbed of modern social capital theory is argued to reside with Dewey (Farr 2004), whose early ideas about the importance of individuals associating with one another led him to use the term social capital in 1900 when explaining the importance of reading, writing, and arithmetic to the social life of the student: "These subjects are social in a double sense. They represent the tools which society has evolved in the past as the instruments of its intellectual pursuits. They [also] represent the keys which will unlock to the child the wealth of social capital which lies beyond the possible range of his limited individual experience" (9: 230). Dewey's ideas are reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville, who never discussed social capital by name but recognized the importance of social relations in American communities and the dangers imposed by the absence of...


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