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«Family-School Relations as Social Capital: Chinese Parents in the United States Dan Wang Abstract Guided by both Coleman and Bourdieu’s theories on ...»

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Family-School Relations as Social Capital:

Chinese Parents in the United States

Dan Wang


Guided by both Coleman and Bourdieu’s theories on social capital, I inter-

viewed Chinese immigrant parents to understand their experiences in weaving

social connections with the school and teachers to benefit their children’s edu-

cation. This study confirms Coleman’s argument that human capital in parents

will not transfer to the children automatically. The intergenerational transmis- sion process is interrupted because the parents, although well educated, are not familiar with norms and practices in the new education system. In sharp contrast to parents in China, who aggressively seek and create opportunities to connect with teachers, immigrant Chinese parents adopt a passive role in initiating contacts with school and teachers. Factors contributing to the lower parental commitment to networking include time, jobs, language, and cultural barriers. However, the deeper reason lies in the change of people’s mindsets when they experience a dramatic shift in the surrounding social structures.

The informant parents view American schools as egalitarian and competition free and, therefore, attribute to parent-teacher relationships less instrumental value in their children’s success than they would in China. American education professionals would be surprised by these parents’ naivety and idealization of American schools. Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to conclude that the lack of parental involvement is due to external restrictions or immigrant parents’ misunderstanding of the current U.S. society.

Key Words: social capital, parental involvement, immigrant family, Chinese parents, networking, teachers, relations, United States, public schools, Asian The School Community Journal, 2008, Vol. 18, No. 2 119


Introduction The concept of social capital is acknowledged as valuable by an increas- ing number of educators and sociologists of education because it lends the researchers a new explanatory power, in addition to the traditional factors, such as gender, race, and socioeconomic status (SES), for stratification in the school system. Along this line of literature, researchers try to predict students’ aca- demic achievement (Carbonaro, 1998; Kim, 2002; McNeal, 1999; Morgan & Sorensen, 1999; Teachman, Paasch, & Carver, 1997), drop-out risk (Carbon- aro; Croninger & Lee, 2001; McNeal), and college attendance and other life chances (Furstenberg & Hughes, 1995) influenced by parents’ social capital.

The concept of parents’ social capital in these studies is operationalized in di- verse ways; it incorporates a wide range of indicators, such as “mother attended school meetings” (Furstenberg & Hughes), “parents know parents” (Morgan & Sorensen), “homework checking” (Kim), and “mother’s expectation for child’s education” (Coleman, 1988). Many of these variables are not new at all in educators’ attempts to explain the differences in students’ performances and achievement in school. Inevitably, this leads me to question the legitimacy in using the term “social capital.” Is it a new bottle that contains the old wine?

Why not simply use “parental involvement” or “family support,” which may carry more intuitive meaning than the term “social capital”? Maybe the word “capital” is used merely to attract new or greater attention to the old sociological or educational issues.

Despite these doubts, I still consider parents’ social capital as a necessary and valuable concept. For one, its boundary is more extensive than that of school-based or family-based personal relationships; it can be extended to parents’ worksites, religious affiliation, and other social organizations, some of which are not included in the aforementioned studies. Secondly, and more significantly, social capital is not a static and arbitrary collection of personal interactions occurring in different social sites; instead, it should be imagined as a network woven by the individual parent around him/herself for a specific purpose – better education for the child. Such an interlaced network allows dynamic flows of resources from one link in the network to another in the process of accomplishing the goal. The resources, not the network per se, are the key in the concept of social capital according to Bourdieu’s definition (Bourdieu, 1992, p. 119). The nature of the network and the amount of resources available in the network may be responsible for differentiation in students’ school performance and achievement. Therefore, the concept of social capital is not exactly redundant to the other existing notions in education research.


The empirical works on parents’ social capital, most of which rely on quantitative analyses, mainly follow Coleman’s theoretical framework (Dika & Singh, 2002). These authors endeavor to establish the correlation between the amount of social capital possessed by the parent and the children’s school performance. This body of literature is insufficient in two ways. First, researchers fail to detect the mechanisms that transform social connections into something that could benefit children’s school experiences. Coleman (1988) argues that social closure among parents can facilitate reinforcement of social norms and social control, and therefore leads to a higher degree of congruence of parents’ and children’s views on, for example, the instrumental value of education in one’s life opportunities. Yet, the degree of social control in relation to parents’ closure has not been directly measured and tested. Bourdieu’s theory on access to resources in social networks (Portes, 1998) may be helpful in identifying the invisible mechanisms, but unfortunately, only a few researchers have taken advantage of it (Lareau & Horvat, 1999). Secondly, only a few studies have focused on immigrant parents’ social connectedness and their children’s education (Bhattacharya, 2000; Kim, 2002; Zhang, Ollila, & Harvey, 1998).

Experiences of immigrant parents are undoubtedly unique in that they depart from their well-established social networks in their home countries and need to construct new ones in a new environment, possibly with significant language and cultural barriers. With a growing proportion of immigrant children in U.S. schools, research on immigrant parents’ social capital is certainly pertinent to the improvement of America’s schools.

For this study, I interviewed nine Chinese parents in six families so as to understand their experiences as immigrant parents in weaving their social networks to benefit their children’s education. I was also interested in exploring how their Chinese background influenced their expectations and perceptions of American education, which in turn may have predetermined their strategies of networking with other people.

Theoretical Frameworks

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and American sociologist James Coleman are the major contributing figures in the theoretical development of the concept of social capital (Dika & Singh, 2002; Portes, 1998). Bourdieu (1986) discussed the interaction of three forms of capital: economic, cultural, and social capital. A person would activate the capitals he/she possesses to achieve personal interests in accordance with the dominant practice in a specific social setting – the field – and also conditioned by his/her dispositions that are produced by his/her prior life experiences – the habitus (Bourdieu, 1984, 1992).


Coleman (1988) focused on the role of social capital in the creation of human capital, namely students’ educational attainment. Dika and Singh commented on Coleman’s model as having “structural-functionalist roots.” They continued to summarize that “social capital has been elaborated in two principal ways: in terms of norms [along Coleman’s theory] and in terms of access to institutional resources” [rooted in Bourdieu] (p. 33).

Norms Coleman (1988) defined social capital by its function. “It is not a single entity but a variety of different entities, with two elements in common: they all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate certain actions of actors – whether person or corporate actors – within the structure” (p.

S98). The structure is the relations among the actors. Social capital is inherent in these relations and is productive in the sense that it helps realize personal interest (since this article concentrates on the individual level only) that in its absence would be impossible.

Coleman (1988) has identified three forms of social capital: (1) obligations, expectations, and trustworthiness of structures; (2) information channels; and (3) norms and effective sanctions. The first form of social capital can be interpreted as the amount of credits accumulated that are expected to be repaid according to the norm of reciprocity. A helps B and trusts B to return the favor in time. At first look, an instrumental motivation seems to be the source for this form of social capital; a close look can reveal that it is contingent on the norm of reciprocity and the severity of social sanctions once the norm is violated. Information channels can spread the deeds in compliance with the social norms or disclose the behaviors in violation of the norms, hence incurring social sanctions in the latter case. In either case, information channels facilitate the reinforcement of the social norms.

One important argument of Coleman (1988) is that financial and human capital of parents is necessary in the development of human capital in their children, but each by itself is not sufficient (Teachman, Paasch, & Carver, 1997).

Social capital within the family – discussions with children, monitoring and helping with homework, number of siblings, and so forth – helps the children to take advantages of the financial, cultural, and human resources available to them in the family. In the past decade, the effect of family-based social capital has been tested in an extensive body of research. Dika and Singh (2002) gave a comprehensive review on the methods and findings of these studies. Most findings show positive relations between family-based social capital and students’ learning and school attainment.


Coleman’s essay on social capital in the creation of human capital has a farreaching influence on educators and researchers who are interested in this issue.

Despite reasonable criticisms by some scholars (Dika & Singh, 2002; Portes, 1998), several of Coleman’s concepts, such as the structure of social closure and mechanisms of norms, are undeniably refreshing and enlightening.

Access to Institutional Resources Another source of social capital theories is the work of Pierre Bourdieu.

He 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 and recognition” (1986, p. 248).

There is a clear distinction between the resources and the network, that is, the access to the resources, in Bourdieu’s definition (Dika & Singh, 2002; Portes, 1998). “The volume of the social capital possessed by a given agent…depends on the size of the network of connections he can effectively mobilize and on the volume of the capital (economic, cultural, or symbolic) possessed in his own right by each of those to whom he is connected” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 249). Social capital is not to be understood in isolation, but in relation to other forms of capital – economic and cultural – and more importantly, in relation to the field and the habitus (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).

Economic capital is that which is “immediately and directly convertible into money and may be institutionalized in the form of property rights…” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 243). Cultural capital exists in three forms: in the embodied, objectified, or institutionalized state (p. 243). The embodied state refers to the dispositions in the body and mind; the objectified state means cultural goods like books, music recordings, and movies; institutionalized cultural capital mainly refers to formal academic qualifications. All three types of capital can be converted from one type to another. Yet, economic capital is the root of the rest of types of capital; social and cultural capital is reducible to economic capital in the final analysis (pp. 252-253). Cultural and social capital, like economic capital, takes labor and time to accumulate. The longer social and cultural capital take to accumulate, the more invisible their function as mediation to the reproduction of economic capital; however, this also entails higher risk of loss, for example, unwise trust or failure to find employment upon graduation. In a given situation, the possessor of the capital will decide to utilize a certain type of capital or transform one type to another so as to achieve certain ends, which ultimately can be translated into economic terms. However, social capital works in a way that is unique compared with other types of capital. Social capital makes it possible for an individual to use the resources (capital) institutionalized into the network but possessed by other members, not by him/herself.



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