Developing healthy social and cultural capital and its effects on education

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Klaudija Šterman Ivančič

Although social and cultural capital is to some extent determined, it is important to be aware that individuals’ social capital can also be built and strengthened via the family, peers, school and wider local community. Not only does it encourage a student’s persistence in education, it can also help overcome the effects of a deficit in cultural capital on an individual’s educational path.

The main aim of this article was to identify factors at the social- and cultural-capital level that importantly affect students’ educational outcomes and early school leaving (ESL) rates as well as to identify factors which can be impacted in order to improve educational outcomes and reduce ESL rates. Based on a literature review, we identified the following factors that form an individual’s cultural capital: socio-economic status of individual, parents’ education level, structure of the family, time spent with children, family culture and educational values, and immigrant status. Further, in the field of investigating the effects of social capital, the chief focus is on the quality of the family environment and relationships, peer relationships, relationships within the school and wider community, and school climate. All of these factors have an important direct impact on students’ educational path and ESL and an indirect impact through interaction between an individual’s social and cultural capital factors. One of the most important views we expose after reviewing different research results in this field is that the individual’s social capital in families, schools and the wider community can be systematically built and strengthened in order to reduce the negative effects of deficits in an individual’s cultural capital. The main steps we identified are: encouragement of support services helping and giving advice to parents on how to positively and supportively raise and educate a child, allowing parents to successfully reconcile professional and private life, enhancing the dialogue between parents and schools, empowering parents and teachers with knowledge of the importance of socio-emotional support during the educational process, strengthening the development of a positive school climate that also includes positive peer relations, and bolstering supportive community-based practices and infrastructure that encourage an inclusive environment and strengthen the individual’s sense of belonging, self-concept of ability and interest, and autonomy.


The present article has two general aims: to identify factors at the social and cultural capital level that importantly affect early school leaving (ESL) and to identify areas of social and cultural capital that can be encouraged by a student’s closer and more distant social settings in order to positively influence their educational outcomes. Overall research trends in this area primarily concentrate on the positive and negative effects of a student’s cultural (socio-economic status of family, education level of parents, family’s immigrant status etc.) and social (support from parents, peers, teachers and the community) background on their educational success, values and achievements. Results (e.g. Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001; Panzaru & Tomita, 2013; Lamb, 2003) indicate that all of the factors mentioned above have an important direct impact on students’ educational outcomes and ESL and an indirect impact through interaction between an individual’s social- and cultural-level factors. This means that the relationship between cultural capital and a student’s ESL depends on the level of their social capital; a higher level of social capital can reduce the negative effects of deficits in cultural capital on ESL. Nonetheless, there is less research that considers the interaction effects between social and cultural capital and points to ways that can help minimise the negative effects of disadvantaged social and cultural backgrounds on ESL. The emerging presumption is that social and cultural capital interact importantly and, furthermore, that there are areas of social capital that can be strengthened on all levels of social settings (including at the peers, family, school and community level) in order to reduce the negative effects of deprivileged cultural backgrounds on educational outcomes and ESL. We intend to investigate this presumption by reviewing the scientific research literature that addresses this topic.

In the continuation of the article, we first introduce the theoretical conceptions of social and cultural capital that are most widely used as a basis for research in the majority of studies. Following is a review of studies that addressed the linear effects of social and cultural capital on ESL and educational outcomes and interactional effects between social and cultural capital. Based on a review of the research findings, we synthesise conclusions which identify areas of social and cultural capital that can be strengthened (via family support programmes and policies, strengthening peer relationships, developing a caring school community, school-community collaboration and support of wider community actors) in order to successfully fight ESL.

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Figure 1: Effects between cultural and social capital, ESL, and areas to be strengthened

Arrows in the figure do not imply the only possible relations among the variables. They merely demonstrate the relations examined in this article.


In order to obtain adequate research results, we conducted a literature search of the EBSCOhost online research databases. Since we wanted to cover all possible areas of the topic, we searched for the results in Academic Search Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, PsycBOOKS, PsycINFO and SocINDEX with full text databases. The main keywords that were used are: social capital and ESL, cultural capital and ESL, tackling ESL, effects between social and cultural capital. We also examined references cited in the reviewed articles. Studies that met the following criteria were taken into account: the sample had to consist of adolescents who had left the upper secondary education level before completion, a topic needed to address ESL, data had to present direct or indirect effects of social- and cultural-level factors on educational outcomes and ESL. The results are chiefly based on findings from scientific research articles, although we also took relevant documents from the European Commission and the OECD that address the ESL issue into consideration.

Social and cultural capital

As mentioned, in this article we focus on studies that analysed the linear and interaction effects of a student’s social and cultural capital on their educational outcomes, especially achievement and ESL. First, we want to define the theoretical concepts of social and cultural capital as used in most studies.

The majority of research on social and cultural capital in education follows Bourdieu’s (1986) and Coleman’s (1988) theoretical conceptions (Clycq, Nouwen, & Timmerman, 2014). According to those authors, social capital derives from social networks, but is nevertheless the property of an individual. Coleman (1988) distinguishes three types of capital impact on an individual’s learning outcomes: financial capital, human capital and social capital. Financial and human capital is also referred to as cultural capital. Financial capital is measured by a family’s wealth or income, and human capital by one’s parents’ level of education. Such a conceptualisation of cultural capital is also known as family background. Social capital is, on the other hand, measured by the density and quality of relationships and interactions among parents, children and schools. Social capital can occur both within and outside the family. Coleman (1988) argues that it is social capital that allows children to translate the cultural capital present in their family and wider social environment (e.g. schools) into increased well-being. Besides Coleman’s conceptualisation of cultural and social capital, contemporary authors (e.g. Epstein, 2009; Sanders, 2009) point to another very important aspect of the individual’s cultural and social capital, that is the characteristics of the wider community (supportive, educative community, promotion of community-based learning, connectedness of families, schools, and wider community organisations).

Following this conceptualisation there is a large body of research (e.g. Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001; Epstein, 2009; Panzaru & Tomita, 2013; Lamb, 2003) addressing the linear effects of social and cultural capital on an individual’s educational outcomes. In the context of ESL, the majority of studies are particularly focused on the following factors that form an individual’s cultural capital: socio-economic status of the individual, parents’ education level, structure of the family, time spent with children, family culture and educational values, and immigrant status. In addition, in the field of investigating the effects of social capital, the main focus is on the quality of the family environment and relationships, peer relationships, relationships within the school and wider community, and school climate. In the section below we present some of the key findings.

Cultural capital and educational outcomes

The two most commonly identified cultural capital factors of ESL are the individual’s socio-economic background (as an indicator of financial capital) and the education level of the parents (as an indicator of human capital). Different national (e.g. Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001; Janosz, Le Blanc, Boulerice, & Tremblay, 2000; Lamb, Walstab, Teese, Vichers, & Rumberger, 2004; Matković, 2009; Panzaru & Tomita, 2013; Rumberger & Lamb, 2003; Traag & van der Velden, 2008) and international studies (OECD, 2010, 2013) confirmed that students from families receiving financial support and students who have less educated parents reveal a higher risk of ESL. The European Commission (2015) also states the raising the educational level of parents and thus enhancing their cultural capital is one of the most important points for tackling ESL.

Socio-economic background and education level of parents are also importantly connected to two other widely investigated cultural capital factors, namely, structure of the family and time spent with children. The results of different studies (e.g. Alexander et al., 2001; Anisef, Brown, Phythian, & Walters, 2010; Lamb et al., 2004; Traag & van der Velden, 2008) show that families with a poorer socio-economic background and single-parent families generally possess fewer material and socio-emotional resources that promote student achievement and retention in school. Some findings (Hsin, 2009) also suggest that the productivity of parents’ time with children – in terms of their ability to translate time investments into positive achievement outcomes – largely depends on their education level.

Rumberger (2004) argues that it is necessary to analyse ESL from an institutional (community) perspective. Within this perspective, the student’s behaviour is seen as shaped within different social settings and contexts in which the student lives and learns: e.g. community, school. Especially important are school-related beliefs and values that the individual absorbs in his/her cultural and social settings. Some research studies (Anisef et al., 2010) point out that 13% of the variation in the odds of dropping out can be attributed to community and neighbourhood factors. Through the early years of living within different backgrounds, children acquire different understandings of schooling and education, and this is the important view of their social capital that influences their engagement in schoolwork and their academic performance. According to Bourdieu (1977), families from different social strata pass different cultural values on to their children. In order to sustain educational engagement, it is necessary that students perceive congruence between their own values and those of the education system. Especially at risk are students with an immigrant background (Anisef et al., 2010) who are exposed to an even higher risk of dropping out since the cultural differences between their culture and the host society present them with even greater challenges to adapt and integrate into a new social environment.

Social capital and educational outcomes

Clycq and colleagues (2014) state that it is already established that social capital in the sense of an individual’s supportive social networks positively influences his/her educational outcomes and navigation through the education system. Feeling needed, supported, respected and connected are fundamental concepts underlying psychological motivation and functioning (Anderman, 2002; Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Every individual has a desire to form relationships from which they gain a sense of belonging, respect, acceptance and encouragement. This is a concept of socio-emotional support which is the core of close and positive relationships and one of the most important views of social capital in relation to ESL.

The results of different research studies (e.g. Cederberg & Hartsmar, 2013; Gregory & Weinstein, 2004; Owens, Shippe, & Hensel, 2008) show that students with close social ties are able to face difficult situations better, have greater resistance to stress, and deal with problematic situations more easily. Hence, in order to support the development of young peoples’ social capital it is crucial to concentrate on promoting those environments most vital for enabling use of those resources (Rose, Wooley, & Bowen, 2013). In the case of ESL, youth, i.e. secondary school students, following social systems with important social ties can be distinguished in the research literature: family (particularly parents), peers, schools (especially teachers), and relationships in the wider community (e.g. organisations that connect families, schools and local communities and create inclusive, safe and nurturing environments). Since it is hard to separate the effects of a particular relationship on a student’s well-being and functioning in the school context and because those relationships are usually always connected to the social network, most of the reviewed research focuses on investigating the whole network or at least two important social settings.

The Confederation of Family Organisations in the European Union (COFACE) points out that family context in the sense of healthy parental behaviour and the relationship with a child plays a crucial role in the future academic success of children and ESL (Coface, 2010). Besides that, Downes (2011) states that in order to tackle ESL efficiently socio-emotional support needs to be present not only at a student’s family level, but also at a systemic level which includes the teacher’s supportive interaction with students, positive relationships in peer groups, supportive collaboration among teachers, schools and community agents.

Studies (e.g. Wrona, Malkowska-Szkutnik, & Tomaszewska-Pekala, 2014) that investigated the correlation between students’ socio-emotional support in three social settings (family, peers and school) – as a factor of social capital – and respondents’ desire to continue secondary education confirmed the existence of a negative correlation between the respondents’ desire to leave education before completing upper secondary school and the perceived level of social support. However, in the case of perceived parental and teachers’ support, the correlation appeared to be weaker than in the case of a student’s relationship with their friends/peers.

There are also other studies that support those results in an ESL context where authors (Frostad, 2014; Archambault, Janosz, Morizot, & Pagani, 2009) found that feelings of loneliness and being rejected by peers are some of the most important factors behind ESL, and that the perception of the school environment largely constitutes attitudes to school in a peer group. Moreover, peer relationships that do not include deviant friends, friends who dropped out and include enjoyment in participating in school-complementary peer activities significantly positively influence one’s educational aspirations (Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Janosz, LeBlanc, Boulerice, & Tremblay, 1997; Madarasova Geckova, Tavel, & van Dijk, 2010).

A major body of literature (e.g. Cederberg & Hartsmar, 2013; Groninger & Lee, 2001; Lee & Breen, 2007; Newman, Lohman, Newman, Mayers, & Smith, 2000; Smyth & Hattam, 2002; Weinstein, 2002) also addresses the school climate as one of the most important factors of both an individual’s social capital and ESL. Especially important in this context is a student’s feeling of belonging to school, which can be encouraged through a positive student-teacher relationship. Individuals deprived of a sense of belonging often experience greater social rejection, emotional distress and are more likely to leave school early. The extent to which teachers support pupils’ efforts to succeed in school also help reduce the number of early school leavers and prove to be especially effective for pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. PISA 2012 results (OECD, 2013) also show that an individual’s sense of belonging positively affects higher academic achievement.

A sense of belonging and relatedness can also be strengthened through support of wider community agents (e.g. social support agents, institutions that promote culture, sport etc.) and collaboration among families, schools and the community. Particularly important for ESL is the concept of community-based learning which takes place in informal settings, introduces interesting real-life situations and learning opportunities and, as such, fosters students’ sense of belonging and intrinsic academic motivation (Schargel & Smink, 2004). Research results in this field (e.g. Epstein, 2009; Ellias & Haynes, 2009; Sanders, 2009) show that the community which supports an inclusive educational environment where individuals feel accepted, respected and supported positively affects the individual’s academic achievements, reduces ESL rates and, most importantly, strengthens the individual’s social networks and capital.

We can see that social capital in terms of supportive relationships plays an important role in fighting ESL. Rosenfeld (2000) underlines that policy-makers, communities, parents and teachers need to be aware of the fact that perceived teacher or parent or peer or community support alone is not effective; teacher support must be combined with perceived support from parents or friends or wider community agents, albeit the best combination is perceived support from all providers.

Interaction effects of social and cultural capital on ESL

Nowadays, the two main questions posed by research community and policy-makers regarding social and cultural capital’s on ESL rates are: In which ways do social and cultural capital interact, and can social capital be used to reduce the negative effects of a deficit in an individual’s cultural capital (Coface, 2010)? Most research in this field examines the effects between family and teacher-student relationships, the socio-economic status (SES) of parents, and their education level.

Coleman (1988) stated that social capital represents a filter through which the parents’ cultural capital is transmitted to and used by their children. Most research on this topic (e.g. Bordieu, 1977; Markussen, Froseth, & Sendberg, 2011; Roderick, 1993) established links between students’ (social and cultural) background and parental SES, education completion, perceptions of schooling, educational values, a student’s engagement with school work and their performance. Teachman, Paasch and Carver (1996) tested whether social capital in terms of supportive relationships moderates the effect of parental financial and cultural capital on leaving school early. The results showed that the relationship between cultural capital and a student’s ESL varies according to the level of schooling-specific social capital (e.g. parents’ involvement and support in learning and school activities) presented in the family. Greater amounts of social capital reduce the negative effects of cultural capital on dropping out of school and therefore suggest that those effects can be decreased by strengthening the individual’s social capital.

Roderick (1993) also claims that the school community and wider community can make a difference for students at risk of dropping out by compensating for the lack of support from their parents, while Rumberger (2004) states that, although schools cannot do anything about the demographic and social characteristics of their students, they can change their own practices that have a direct impact on ESL rates in their school.

In addition, the OECD (2013) points to the importance of policy measures strengthening school and community practices that encourage supportive relationships among teachers, students and families, especially in socio-economically deprivileged areas where the individual’s cultural capital determines their social capital to an even greater extent. For instance, families with a lower SES usually live in less settled neighbourhoods and school areas, and children have friends from those neighbourhoods. Accordingly, policy attention to strengthening social capital in these areas is even more warranted. To some point, it is therefore not a coincidence which friends children chose, relationships they form, peer and community values they absorb, and which teachers educate them. Still, OECD studies (2013) show that school and community practices which encourage supportive relationships among teachers, students, families, schools and the wider community and establish the same teaching standards for all can help overcome the obstacles of cultural capital in case of deprivileged students.


According to the literature review we can identify the following social and cultural capital factors that importantly affect ESL: socio-economic status of the individual, parents’ education level, structure of the family, time spent with children, family culture and educational values, immigrant status, quality of the family environment and relationships, peer relationships, relationships within the school and wider community, and school climate. As seen in previous chapters, all of these factors have an important direct impact on students’ educational outcomes and ESL and an indirect impact through interaction between an individual’s social- and cultural-level factors. The latter means that the relationship of cultural capital with a student’s early dropping out is weaker for students with higher social capital (compared to low social capital); it means that social capital can reduce the negative effects of cultural capital (e.g. low socio-economic status) on ESL. The main focus of this article was to identify the factors of social and cultural capital that can be impacted so as to lower ESL rates.

We found that social capital factors originate from family, school and wider community environments (Epstein, 2009; Tukundane, Zeelen, Minnaert, & Kanyandago, 2014). Parents are the first and closest agents when considering a student’s educational outcomes. In order to successfully tackle ESL, the social and cultural capital of parents needs to be improved. In other words, parenting support is desirable and even necessary to ensure the required framework enabling proper parental involvement in children’s education (Giddens, 2011; Panzaru & Tomita, 2013). In this matter family support policies that support child health and appropriately combine work and family responsibilities are an essential pillar in reducing the incidence of ESL (Kamerman, 2000).

Coface (2010) also points out that to successfully tackle ESL countries should support services helping and giving advice to parents on how to raise and educate a child, how to deal with ESL, fight against the social exclusion of parents through lifelong learning education, offer them social support and reintegration into the labour market, national policies should allow working parents to successfully reconcile their professional and private life, and the dialogue between parents and schools should be enhanced since many of the just mentioned factors can be supported through cooperation between schools and parents.

We may conclude that the quality of family life importantly affects children’s school performance but, on the other hand, it is also depends heavily on the family’s cultural capital, e.g. economic welfare. Here, there are important indications in the literature that, in order to minimise the negative effects of a student’s background, there is a need to take actions that will strengthen the development of a positive school climate that also includes strengthening friendly peer relations. This could be a major factor improving the social capital of teenagers and thus their resilience to various educational challenges (Wrona et al., 2014). Relationships in schools should ensure a sense of belonging and psychological safety. In this matter, schools should promote a caring school community by fostering caring relationships between teachers and children. Also important is collaboration of the school community with wider community agents in order to bring the learning process to the informal environment, encourage students’ connectedness with the community and thereby strengthen their sense of belonging, self-concept of ability and interest, and autonomy.

There is also a note to be taken from the research results (Newman, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992; Rumberger, 2004; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986) which indicates that education systems must accept students from different backgrounds and act accordingly. Wehlage and Rutter (1986) claim that the education system in a democratic country cannot run away from responding to students of all backgrounds and social conditions. They argue that school and the community as a whole are obliged to accept differences as a fact of life and offer positive and supportive relationships and material conditions to all students involved, particularly those deprived from this in their home environment. Here public schools and community agents have an obligation to constructively serve children from all backgrounds and need to improve their effectiveness (Hendrick, MacMillan, Balow, & Fellow, 1989).

We can conclude that community policy-makers, parents and teachers need to be aware of the fact that especially individuals’ social capital can be systematically built and strengthened. Further research in this area is also called for. We find there is a lack of both research (also see Rosenfeld, 2000) and theoretical conceptions that explicitly define areas and forms of socio-emotional support in all social settings that promote a student’s educational outcomes and help in lowering ESL rates.

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