Children, Youth and Environments.
Vol 14, No.1 (2004)
ISSN 1546-2250

Conceptualizing Social Capital among Young People: Towards a New Theory1,2


Nicole J. Schaefer-McDaniel
The Graduate Center City University of New York

Citation: Schaefer-McDaniel, Nicole J. (2004). “Conceptualizing Social Capital among Young People: Toward a New Theory.” Children, Youth and Environments 14(1): 140-150.

Comment on This Article


The concept of social capital has gained more recognition in the past few decades but has created conceptual confusion due to varying uses of the term by different writers. Definitional and methodological flaws plague the few studies that have explored social capital among young people. This paper offers a critical synthesis of the construct and also introduces a new theoretical framework of social capital among young people to encourage future research. The author understands social capital among young people to consist of three components, two of which have previously been discussed in the adult social capital literature: 1) Social networks/interactions and sociability; 2) trust and reciprocity; and 3) sense of belonging/place attachment. Lastly, beneficial outcomes of exploring and investing social capital in this population are discussed.

Keywords: social capital, children, young people, theory


The concept of social capital has been drawing more attention and research in the past few decades (Bourdieu 1977; Coleman 1987; 1988; Foley, McCarthy, and Chaves 2001; Gittell and Thompson 2001; James, Schulz, and van Olphen 2001; Putnam 1993; 2000; Sampson 2001; Warren, Thompson, and Saegert 2001). In this body of literature, however, considerable conceptual confusion exists because of different uses of the term by different authors. This paper, therefore, offers a critical synthesis of the term “social capital” as defined by its theoretical fathers (Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman, and Robert Putnam). Of particular focus is the research and theory of social capital among young people since it has not gained as much attention as research exploring social capital among adults. Lastly, special attention is drawn to the importance and benefits of investigating social capital among children and youth.

Pierre Bourdieu: Social Capital and Cultural Capital

Despite French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s early definition of social capital, his theory (published in French) is often overlooked in the historical context (Morrow 2001; Portes 1998). Social capital, according to Bourdieu (1984), consists of two dimensions: 1) social networks and connections/relationships and 2) sociability. Bourdieu specifically explains that people must not only have relationships with others, they must further understand how these networks operate and how one can maintain and utilize these relationships over time. Particularly, Bourdieu emphasizes that social networks must be constructed and then skillfully maintained in order for the actor to utilize their resources.

Bourdieu (1977) further described the concept of “cultural capital.” He used the term to refer to information or knowledge about specific cultural beliefs, traditions, and standards of behavior that promote success and accomplishment in life. Cultural capital is passed through the family from parents to children by spending economic resources on culturally valued and specific items such as books, tickets to the theater or museums, and other culturally-specific artifacts. This concept specifically incorporates an understanding and familiarity of a dominant culture and language in society. While Bourdieu postulates that cultural capital is most beneficial for upper-class students, he was primarily interested in understanding how people utilize these two forms of capital, as well as how they work together to reproduce social inequalities.

James Coleman: Social Capital in Families and Schools

The family system is the basis for American sociologist James Coleman’s definition of social capital. He observed that family systems are made up of a) financial capital (financial resources for household and child rearing expenses); b) human capital (parental education and economic skills); and c) social capital (Coleman 1988, 1990a). While the first two concepts refer to parental financial and cognitive abilities, the latter term strictly refers to the more social and interpersonal aspects of family life. Drawing on Bourdieu’s previous definition, Coleman (1988) recognized two distinct components of social capital: social capital 1) as a relational construct and 2) as providing resources to others through relationships with individuals. Social capital is specifically defined by its function (Coleman 1990a) and refers to “an asset that a person or persons can use as a resource. Social capital is any kind of social relationship that is a resource to the person” (Coleman 1990b, 35). Moreover, Coleman (1988) highlights various benefits of social capital, including expectations and obligations of trust and reciprocity and establishing norms and values in relationships.

This definition additionally draws attention to the communication between family members. These communication skills, according to Coleman (1990b), are important in the family structure since they form the basic rules and norms and thus foster personal obligations and responsibilities among family members. Coleman also observed that social capital is very strong in connected social networks. While the concept may appear to be of a stable nature, it is important to note that Coleman defines social capital as a relatively unstable construct (Furstenberg and Hughes 1995) that can change over time and in response to different situations.

Despite his early focus on social capital in the family, Coleman (1990b) noted that social capital is extremely important in school settings as well. Particularly, Coleman mentioned six crucial types of interpersonal relationships in the school setting: among students, among teachers, among parents, between teachers and students, between teachers and parents, and between students and parents (Coleman 1990b). While these relationships may appear obvious to scholars interested in studying social relationships in a school environment, it is important to note that these relationships (as well as relationships in general) are of a bi-directional nature. This means that in order to fully understand and assess social capital in the school environment, one must examine all relationships and interactions among parents, teachers, and students.

Coleman further believed that increasing social capital in the school (by strengthening the social relationships between parents, teachers, and students) would increase academic achievement in students (Coleman 1990b). Additionally, he noted the importance of parental involvement in the school to increase personal awareness and further enhance relationships with teachers, students, and fellow parents. Increasing parental participation, as seen in a Chicago school in which parents lead extracurricular activities (Coleman 1990b), will therefore result in increased social capital and thus play a role in not only enhancing existing relationships, but also in fostering new ones, while increasing students’ academic achievement.

In sum, according to Coleman, social capital is defined as a concept that can be applied to different environmental settings and across different populations. In any setting though, relationships must be understood in their bi-directional nature. Increasing social capital then can have beneficial outcomes, such as better communication and greater academic achievement.

Robert Putnam: Social Capital in Communities

While Coleman stresses the importance of family and school systems as the most typical settings for investigating social capital (and thus like Bourdieu presents a more individualistic picture of the construct), the American political scientist Robert Putnam extends the definition to apply to societies and communities in general. His interpretation of social capital has therefore often been referred to as a “collective asset” and a “common good” (Warren, Thompson, and Saegert 2001, 1) of neighborhoods and communities. Putnam (2000) differentiates between physical capital (physical objects), human capital (individual properties), and social capital. In his theory and like the two theories previously discussed, social capital refers to social networks and interpersonal relationships. Coleman introduced the notions of reciprocity and trustworthiness and they are central components in Putnam’s theory. According to Putnam, the notions of trust and reciprocity arise from our social network relationships and thus generate “civic virtue” (Putnam 2000, 19) or a trusting community where residents not only know each other but are actively involved in each other’s lives and maintain trustful and helpful relations (e.g., looking after a neighbor’s children). It is further important to note that in order to achieve a strong community with high social capital, the notions of trust and reciprocity as well as the consequential obligations must be mutual among residents.

Like Coleman, Putnam notes that close or collective communities have greater social capital. However, in contrast to Bourdieu’s (and somewhat in contrast to Coleman’s) understanding of social capital primarily as a private good (increased social capital facilitates beneficial outcomes for the individual, such as academic success), Putnam’s theory solely understands social capital as a public good (high social capital facilitates beneficial outcomes for the community, such as reduced crime or increased political participation).

Due to Putnam’s focus on communities and society itself, his theoretical framework has received a lot of attention from community development researchers and has thus become the dominant theory of social capital. Community researchers as well as Putnam have subsequently offered three levels of social capital: bonding, bridging, and synergy (Putnam 2000; Warren, Thompson and Saegert 2001). Bonding social capital is defined as the internal but exclusive form of social capital within communities. It is internal because it includes only individuals of specific organizations (e.g., National Organization for Women) and therefore exclusive since it does not connect to other organizations. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, refers to inclusive activities that include various people of different origins that work towards a common cause (e.g., the civil rights movement). Synergy occurs when governments cooperate with community networks and organizations in order to achieve a common goal.

The Need for a Critical Synthesis

Bourdieu, Coleman, and Putnam have provided the literature with insightful theoretical frameworks of social capital. Bourdieu defines the construct as cultural and social assets that give the actor better access to resources. Coleman views it as an aspect of the social structure that occurs within and outside the family and serves to secure human capital. Finally, rather than adopting Coleman’s view that individual social capital contributes to the public good, Putnam regards social capital exclusively as a community asset that assists in the acquisition of a democratic society.

While all three theories build on each other, there are some noteworthy limitations that should be discussed. First, Coleman’s interpretation of social capital focuses on examining the quantity and not the quality of interpersonal relations (Parcel and Menaghan 1993). Spending time with children is crucial for their development, however, how that time is spent and what types of activities are undertaken seem more important than merely the amount of time that is spent with the child. Second, despite the fact that previous research found differences in social networks between boys and girls (for a review see Gifford-Smith and Brownell 2003), none of the theorists addresses the important issue of how individuals of different genders, ethnicities, and cultures experience and view social capital (Morrow 1999a; 2001). Further, research on social capital has also primarily focused on poor communities, while the role of social capital in wealthy communities has been ignored. Current research has yet to address these issues and no theory has taken any of these factors into consideration.

Social Capital in Children and Youth

While social capital research is still in its early stages, it is noteworthy that the vast majority of studies have focused on the adult population. To date, only a handful of studies have investigated the role of social capital among young people, and those studies have generally focused on adolescents. Table 1 illustrates the wide diversity of social capital dimensions that have been offered in research with adults and young people.

In studies with young people, additional problems with the assessment and definition of social capital persist. First, investigators typically neglect to incorporate young people’s perceptions of their relationships and their environment, and instead merely collect such information from parents and/or teachers (Goddard 2003; Marjoribanks 1998; Parcel and Menaghan 1993). Dorsey and Forehand (2003) investigated the relationship between social capital and children’s psychosocial adjustment by solely collecting reports from mothers to measure social capital. They justified their method by stating, “in the literature on social capital, adult reporters are traditionally utilized” (14). It is undeniably a methodological and theoretical error to assume that parents or teachers can present the investigator with accurate perceptions of student or child social networks and environmental perceptions.

Table 1. The Various Dimensions of Social Capital in Research with Adults and Children and Youth.

Second, various incomplete definitions and consequently inconsistent measurements of social capital have been offered that have largely ignored the key component of the construct: social relationships and interactions (Büchel and Duncan 1998; Parcel and Dufur 2001; Parcel and Menaghan 1993; Peterson 2002; Smith, Beaulieu, and Israel 1992; Sutherland, Lee, and Trapp-Dukes 1989). Marjoribanks (1998), for example, explored social capital among Australian youth and defined childhood social capital in terms of parents’ aspirations for their children, and parents’ individualistic orientations and involvement, intellectual ability, and academic achievement. He did not include social interaction in his definition of social capital in childhood. While he did include it in his definition of adolescent social capital, he only considered adolescents’ interactions with adults to part of social capital, not their social interactions with each other. It is extraordinary that none of these studies that claim to examine the role of social capital utilize definitions that incorporate the cornerstone of social capital theory.

Despite numerous problems with research about social capital among young people, not all studies have definitional flaws. A few studies have not only adequately defined the concept, but have also attempted to collect data directly from the target group (Croninger and Lee 2001; Furstenberg and Hughes 1995). However, Croninger and Lee (2001), for example, only investigated a small aspect of social capital, namely the relationship between teacher and student. As Coleman (1990b) noted, children’s social networks in the school consist of far more relationships than the authors investigated. Furstenberg and Hughes (1995) examined the impact of family on social capital among at-risk youth in Baltimore but primarily assessed interactions within the family. To date, only investigations by Virginia Morrow (1999a, 1999b, 2001; 2002) and Xavier de Souza Briggs (1998) have incorporated young people’s perceptions and understandings of their lives, relationships, and environments into the social capital theoretical framework. However, Morrow’s research neglects to examine the role of the family.

Theoretical Framework of Social Capital among Young People

Because theorists like Robert Putnam did not consider youth and children when defining social capital, and due to its inconsistent definition and measurement among young people (Morrow 2001), it seems necessary to build a theory that is relevant to children and youth. The main problem in past research was the failure to consider children and youth’s independent perspective. As previously discussed, data was oftentimes collected from teachers and/or parents who thus served as “proxies” for children (Morrow 2002). Measuring social capital without talking to children does not give us valid data since we are not measuring their opinions but someone else’s. Therefore, a key component of this theory is that social capital must be assessed by talking to young people rather than their parents or teachers. A possible extension of this theory could include measuring social capital among young people and then also interviewing parents and teachers to examine the reciprocity of relationships. However, the important component in this theory is that young people’s agency must be recognized.

The dimensions of a social capital framework for young people are presented in Figure 1, followed by an explanation of each component.

Figure 1. Dimensions of Social Capital among Young People

1. Social Networks and Sociability

The first component, social networks and sociability, are original dimensions of
Bourdieu’s social capital theory. Bordieu’s definition of sociability- the ability to sustain and utilize one’s social network- is similar to de Souza Briggs’ (1998) notion of “social leverage” (possessing the skill to get ahead) as a feature of social capital. Morrow (2001) similarly urged that “actors need to recognize their networks as a resource in order for these networks to constitute social capital” (56). Sociability is no less a central concept in children’s social capital as well.

The emphasis on social relationships and subsequently social network analysis has been gaining increasing attention since the late 1970s. Wellman’s classic 1979 article highlights how intimate relationships to others in our community can help us in everyday matters. Network analysis has been referred to as a “powerful model of [the] social structure” (Scott 1988) and has further contributed to other social science areas including political sociology, social support, social influence, and epidemiology (Galaskiewicz and Wasserman 1993). A review of the history of network analysis (Tindall and Wellman 2001) suggests that communities are in fact networks and that “social capital is a network phenomenon” (276).

Previous studies from the developmental psychology literature solidify the need for examining children’s perceptions of their social networks and interactions. While friendship formation develops early in life (Guralnick and Groom 1988), stable friendships are typically found during the later elementary school years. Cairns and colleagues (1988; 1995) found that fourth graders demonstrate stable social networks and that even aggressive children (often perceived to be without friends) also demonstrate stable social networks. Moreover, the “neighborhood walk” by Bryant (1985) suggests that children as young as seven years old have active social supports and networks that they can readily draw upon and utilize. Results from a number of studies further suggest that young people are eager to discuss their perception of social interactions and friendships (Bryant 1985; Cairns et al. 1988; 1995; Feiring and Lewis 1989; Furman 1989). These findings suggest that children from elementary school age on have active social networks that they can utilize whenever they deem necessary.

The goal of this first dimension is to understand children’s social interactions from their perspective. Incorporating Coleman’s understanding of relationships, children should be asked to describe their interactions with and among peers, with their parents and other family members, teachers, and other people in the community such as neighbors. The aim is to fully explore a young person’s social network. Previous research on children’s social networks and relationships offers various methods for this endeavor including peer nominations, peer ratings, and sociometric status (for a review, see Gifford-Smith and Brownell 2003). Additionally, the degree of sociability should be examined (e.g., Do young children draw on support from social network members? How often do they interact with others?). Further, it is crucial that not only the quantity of their interactions (i.e., time spent with others) but also the quality of the interactions and their satisfaction with them be assessed.

2. Trust and Reciprocity

Drawing on Coleman’s and Putnam’s understanding of social capital, mutual levels of trust and reciprocity will also be incorporated into this theory of social capital among young people. In order to benefit from relationships to others and to use them as resources, one needs to be able to trust that network members are providing us with correct and helpful information and genuine support. In particular, children need to establish trustful relations with family members, people in their neighborhoods, peers, and teachers or other role models. This dimension also refers to authentic fairness, overall trustworthiness, and acts of helpfulness such as engaging in helping behavior without gaining direct benefit (e.g., helping a person cross the street).

3. Sense of Belonging / Place Attachment

Despite the significance of place attachment or sense of belonging in the environmental psychology literature (Chawla 1992; Low and Altman 1992; Proshansky, Fabian, and Kaminoff 1983), this concept has gained very little recognition in the social capital literature. Putnam mentions sense of belonging to a community in his definition (Putnam 1993) but neglects to explain or integrate this concept into his overall theory.

Sense of belonging, as defined here, is closely related to the concept of “psychological sense of community” that is oftentimes mentioned in the community psychology literature (Sarason 1974; MacMillan and Chavis 1986). While sense of belonging refers to an individual feeling of belonging after attaching symbolic meaning to a certain environment, psychological sense of community refers to the degree to which individuals feel that they are part of a collective community. More specifically, two components overlap with sense of belonging: membership (sense of feeling a part of a group or environment; sense of feeling like one belongs in their environment) and influence (the individual matters to the group; cohesiveness; the group is complete only with the individual) (MacMillan and Chavis 1986). Sense of belonging also incorporates a more symbolic attachment or investment to the place, particularly a feeling of “rootedness or centeredness” (Proshansky, Fabian, and Kaminoff 1983, 60).

Place attachment or sense of belonging to a place such as a community has been shown to influence child development in that it helps children form their identity (Spencer and Woolley 1998). Derr (2002) found in her research that children as early as middle childhood (9 to 11 years) mention that it is important to “feel at home” (127). Additionally, scholars attribute academic success to a sense of belonging to a school (Edwards and Mullis 2001) and explain that violent behavior is more prevalent at schools where children do not feel like they belong.

Therefore, it seems feasible to define social capital among young people also in terms of place attachment or sense of belonging. Past scholars like Narayan and Cassidy (2001) and Morrow (2002) have described social capital in terms of sense of belonging, but this element has not been incorporated into specific theories. The underlying assumption is that when young people feel they belong to a school and/or neighborhood and have a symbolic attachment to the place, they are more likely to make friends and interact with peers.

While this theory has been described to consist of three separate components, social networks/sociability, trust and reciprocity, and sense of belonging/place attachment, it is important to note the interrelatedness of these elements. For example, the notions of trust and reciprocity greatly overlap with sociability since many of our everyday social encounters are marked by trust-based and reciprocated interactions. Additionally, our interactions are also influenced by our sense of belonging in a given environment– we may be happier or more comfortable in environments in which we feel at home and thus have more positive interactions.

Differences from Traditional Theory

While previous scholars have defined social capital in terms of participation and membership in community and neighborhood organizations (Cattell 2001; Cheng 2001; Putnam 1993; Putnam 2000; Smith, Beaulieu and Israel 1992), I am drawing attention to the type of participation. For example, young people may be forced to participate in community service or attend church because their parents, teachers or other role models require them to do so. Participation is then not voluntary, but coerced. In terms of social capital, it is more relevant to explore children’s voluntary participation in organizations. This theory does not regard voluntary participation as an element of the construct but rather as an outcome of social capital.

Moreover, in contrast to the mainstream theories of social capital that define the construct as either a collective or individual asset, this social capital theory characterizes it as being both an individual asset and a community asset. In this sense, social capital does not only provide the individuals with beneficial goals such as academic success or increased well-being, but it also provides the individual’s community with positive outcomes such as increased safety and increased participation in formal and social organizations.

Consequences/Outcomes of Social Capital

Previous research among adults has demonstrated that social capital has beneficial effects in both the private and public sector: it has fostered productive outcomes including success in schools (Coleman 1985; 1990b; Goddard 2003; Noguera 2001), in the community (Cohen 2001; Foley, McCarthy, and Chaves 2001), and society in terms of economic prosperity (Gittell and Thompson 2001; Putnam 1993) and a reduction in criminal activity (Sampson 2001). As Figure 2 suggests, it is therefore quite plausible that social capital among young people also has beneficial effects on the individual and the community levels.

Specifically, on the individual level, young people will benefit from social capital not only through academic success, but also through an increase in their own social networks and resources. Further, social capital has been linked to beneficial health outcomes for adults (Campbell and McLean 2002; Cattell 2001; James, Schulz, and van Olphen 2001). It is thus probable to assume that the same holds for children and youth, particularly in respect to quality of life and levels of stress. Strengthened social networks and relationships as well as increased trust and sense of belonging in one’s community, will improve young people’s quality of life and decrease their symptoms of stress.

At the community level, social capital will increase participation in social and formal groups such as playgroups, youth and sports groups, after school activities, and perhaps participation and/or membership in religious organizations. Through this increase in participation, children will also develop group skills that will contribute to an increase in democratic participation among children. Particularly, children will learn to get along with others, respect their ideas and opinions, and respect each other. Numerous scholars, including Hart (1992; 1997) and Chawla and Heft (2002), describe activities that children all over the world collectively undertake. In these activities, children foster democratic participation by planning and managing their environments with little adult involvement. In these projects, children’s voices are recognized and children’s rights to voice their opinions or to “care” about their environments are promoted. Such participation has been linked to increased social development including improved self-esteem, efficacy, and decision-making (Chawla and Heft 2002). Through this participation, children will become mindful of society and can become an initiative in social change as well as encourage participation of the entire family (Hart 1992). Further, this sort of participation in childhood has important implications for the societal level when these children reach adulthood: democratic participation in childhood prepares children for their duties as citizens such as involvement in politics and voting.

While most of the work on social capital has focused on positive community outcomes, it is important to highlight that social capital in communities can also lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. Gangs or the mafia, for example, are collective groups high in social capital. Being a member in these groups is oftentimes associated with increases in crime or other negative consequences. While these potentially negative outcomes should not be ignored, it is imperative to note that additional factors beyond the scope of social capital processes are at play. Specifically, the group dynamics in these organizations do not encourage the mutual levels of trust and reciprocity highlighted in social capital theories. Future research should examine how membership in these types of groups relates to traditional understandings of social capital.

Social Capital and the Environment

This theory of social capital should now be grounded in the physical environment. James Gibson (1979) discusses in his theory of environmental affordances that certain parts of the environments allow or afford certain types of behaviors. Along with this understanding, it is also necessary to explore young people’s use of physical space in their everyday environments and identify areas that enhance or foster social interactions as well as recognize areas that restrict or prohibit such activity. Spaces that enhance social interactions and a sense of belonging (such as parks, meetings places, spaces for socializing, etc.) thus can contribute to building social capital. This line of research should determine the places where social capital is being created and explore how the physical form of the places contributes to its growth. Urban planners should then collaborate with young people in designing these types of spaces in their communities. Social and public policies and interventions can also address the creation or modification of these spaces to serve the particular needs of their users. These types of designs, policies, and interventions would then contribute to building social capital among young people.


Exploring social capital among young people remains crucial, since previous research with adults has linked the concept to beneficial individual and societal outcomes. If similar results apply to young people as well, researchers can focus on interventions that foster the building of social capital (e.g., creating homework or educational programs for school-aged children during the after-school hours) and change affordances or features of the environment in order to enhance social capital among young people. Future research investigating social capital among young people should also explore gender, age, and cultural differences (Morrow 1999a; 2001) as well as class, income, and environmental differences.


1. This paper was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2003 CYE Graduate Student Paper for Excellence in Research competition.

2. The author is grateful to Roger Hart for his support and comments on an earlier version.

Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel is originally from Germany but relocated to the New York area following her high school education. She completed her undergraduate degree at Rider University, her M.A. at New York University, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Environmental Psychology at the City University of New York. Past and present research interests include social capital among young people, children’s rights, and housing programs and policies for homeless and low-income individuals.


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