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A Comparison Of Theories Of Social Capital By Pierre Bourdieu And James Coleman

3540 words - 14 pages

A Comparison of Theories of Social Capital by Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman

Social capital is a sociological theory which has gained increasing
attention in recent years. Whilst Bourdieu can be credited with
introducing the term to sociology, it was James Coleman who allowed
the concept to gain widespread recognition, highlighting its
importance as an individual notion. For Bourdieu social capital forms
a part of an overarching theory of ‘fields’, ‘capital’ and their
relation to class reproduction. The key importance of social capital
for Bourdieu is its relationship with economic capital, whilst for
Coleman, social capital is seen to lead to human capital. It seems
that both Bourdieu and Coleman agree that social capital represents
social ties or membership of particular communities that make
resources, advantages and opportunities available to individuals.
Whilst both identify social capital with social structure, they do so
differently, in ways that reflect the theoretical underpinnings of
their respective approaches and the aspects of social reality they
seek to understand. Both Coleman and Bourdieu emphasize the intangible
character of social capital relative to other forms. As Portes (1998)
notes, economic capital can be found in peoples’ bank accounts, whilst
human capital resides in peoples’ heads. Social capital, however,
inheres in the structure of their relationships. Thus to possess
social capital, a person must be related to others and it is those
others, not himself, who are the actual source of advantage. In order
to address this question I will firstly compare and contrast the
definitions of social capital offered by each thinker. I will then
provide an overview of both theorists’ elaborations of such
definitions. Secondly, the fundamental contrasts between explanations
of the social processes which allow social capital to exist will be
discussed, whilst I will argue that this is perhaps the most important
difference between Bourdieu and Coleman’s theories. Thirdly, I will
address the ramifications of such differenced in terms of later
attempts to use these two theoretical approaches in empirical testing
and practice, arguing that whilst Coleman’s approach may seem more
attractive, being inherently more testable and applicable, it is in
fact fraught with ambiguities and inconsistencies, many of which
Bourdieu’s perhaps more challenging theory manages to avoid.

It would firstly seem important to compare the two definitions of
social capital offered by Bourdieu and Coleman. Bourdieu defines the
concept as, ‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which
are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less
institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance or
recognition.’(1985 p.248). Coleman, however defined social capital by

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