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Building social capital in professional learning communities: importance, challenges and a way forward

posted on 2023-05-22, 11:27 authored by William MulfordWilliam Mulford

The idea of social capital has enjoyed a remarkable rise to prominence. By social relationships as a form of capital, it proposes that they are a resource which people can draw on to achieve their goals. It joins other form of capital (economic, human, cultural, identity, and intellectual) as a contributor to our individual, community and national well-being. International bodies such as United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank have engaged in extensive conceptual, empirical and policy related work in the area and a number of websites are devoted entirely to the area.

What do we mean by 'social capital'? In a recent analysis of contemporary academic literature in the area, the World Bank (Grootaert et al. 2004) found that it has been discussed in two related but different ways. The first is subjective or cognitive in nature and refers to resources (Such as information, ideas, support) that individuals are able to procure virtue of with other people. The second is structural in nature and refers to the individual's involvement in informal networks and formal civic organizations. Despite these differences, the World Bank (Grootaert et al. 2004: 3) concludes that social capital 'is most frequently defined in terms of the groups, networks, norms, and trust that people have available to them for productive purposes'.

As well as this generally accepted definition, (Grootaert et al. 2004: 4) point out that common distinctions are made among 'bonding', 'bridging' and 'linking' forms of social capital. 'Bonding' social capital refers to 'ties to people who are similar in terms of their demographic characteristics such as family members, neighbours, close friends and work colleagues'. Bridging social capital is also horizontal in nature but refers to 'ties to people who do not share many of these characteristics'. However, it continues to connect 'people with more or less equal social standing'. 'Linking' social capital operates across power differentials and thus is seen vertical in nature. It refers to 'one's ties to people in positions of authority such as representative of public (police, political parties) and private (banks) institutions'.

Knowing the definition of social capital and its different forms is helpful, but does little to assist in building social capital in professional learning communities in schools. In addressing this gap, this chapter concentrates on the three different forms of social capital, their importance and the challenges involved in achieving each. Bonding social capital occurs among work colleagues within schools, and is the most researched area. Bridging social capital is found between schools. This area is a recent but growing one in the research literature, especially in the area of networking. Linking social capital is found between a school and its community. While there is a long research tradition in this area it tends to be unidirectional, concentrating on what the community can do for the school, but recent research presents a multidirectional perspective. The chapter concludes with a summary of the importance of, and challenges in developing, three forms of social capital and, arising from this material, a way forward. This way forward involves those in schools seeing their task as developmental, starting with the building of social capital.


Publication title

Professional Learning Communities Divergence, Depth and Dilemmas


Louise Stoll and Karen Seashore Louis






Faculty of Education


Open University Press

Place of publication




Rights statement

Copyright 2007 Open University Press

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Policies and development