Social capital in the creation of human capital

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Citation: James S. Coleman (1988) Social capital in the creation of human capital. The American Journal of Sociology (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Social capital in the creation of human capital
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) social capital (RSS)


Coleman argues that the concept of social capital is way to inject the role of social structure into a rational actor paradigm as a "resource for action." Coleman argues that many sociological accounts offer little space for agency and that many economic accounts are too individualistic in their depictions but that social capital finds a way bringing the two by offering a depiction of social structure and its effects in ways that may be easier to integrate into a rational actor framework.

Coleman defines social capital as: "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 persons or corporate actors -- within the structure.

Coleman looks at three forms of social capital:

  1. Obligations and expectations and the "trustworthiness of structures" which might include things like credit slips or IOUs which are only valuable to the degree to which one can trust a person.
  2. Information channels which implies that social networks and connections are conduits for transferring information and that's one position in a social structure will deliver certain information benefits (e.g., information on what is fashionable).
  3. Social norms and effective sanctions. Coleman uses the example of norms which prevent crimes or harm to other people and argues that the existence of a norm can also be a form of social capital and can provide a way of overcoming a public good problem.

A major part of Coleman's theory -- and something that is often missing from other more popular depictions of social capital, is the role of closure. Social network closures implies that there are not what Burt would call structural holes or networks of people that are not connected to each other directly. Coleman argues that this lack of connection makes the first and third examples of social capital very difficult to attain. It is through a "closed" social structure that the benefits of a community (i.e., social capital) can be maintained, through with obligations can be enforced, and through which norms can be constructed.

The second (and less influential) half of Coleman's article is about the role that social capital plays in the creation of human capital and it uses an empirical example from a school. Coleman operationalizes social capital in a number of ways that involve the connectedness of a family and external norms associated with Catholic or non-Catholic schools private or public schools. Coleman shows a series of statistical analysis that control of human capital in the family and show that is the connectedness to these resources either in family members or whether not a student is at a Catholic school (i.e., the social capital) that is tied very closely to drop-out rates of students. The more social capital, the lower the drop-out rates across the board.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

There is little new in Coleman's empircal work and certainly little suprising. Additionally, Coleman's use of the term is borrowed directly from other fields and even from other sociologists (Bordieu had used the term 6 years earlier). Coleman's real contribution was introduce the term to a broader academic sociological context and to empirical sociology in particular. He attempts to build a theoretical contruct that can be used in variety of different theoretical sociological contexts.

Coleman's work was hugely successful. His paper has been cited more than 13,000 times since it's publication in 1988, often as the "ceremonial" citation for use of the term or concept human capital which is often used in a variety of ways.

More details can be seen on the social capital Wikipedia article.