All parents want the best education for their children (Vincent 2017), but not all parental actions are created equal (Lareau 2015). One of the explanations of this phenomenon provided in the literature has been the fact that parents have different amounts of social and cultural capital at their disposal (Reay 2004).  Such variation inevitably leads to increased social inequality in education, especially when parents are expected to be involved in their children’s learning more and more.

When I began my PhD in education focused on the study of immigrant parental involvement, I immediately realized the potential of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of capital (1986) as an explanatory theory for such analysis. In this tradition, cultural capital denotes a set of socially desirable skills and dispositions, while social capital consists of valuable resources acquired through membership in a particular social group.

My main task here was to operationalize the cultural and social capitals for the study of parental involvement in children’s’ education (attending parent-teacher conferences, talking about school, supervising homework, etc.) (Goodall and Montgomery 2014). Before interviewing parents, I had to provisionally decide what would count as their embodied, institutionalized, and objectified types of cultural capital. Definitely, parents belong to a range of networks in their family, work, and community lives, but how do we measure their social capital? Crucially, the migration experiences and transnational connections added another layer to the lived experiences of immigrant parents, who in this particular case grew up and were educated in Eastern European countries before moving to Canada, where their children attended school.

A systematic review of prior research in the filed of parental involvement (Antony-Newman 2018) helped me to make the following choices. English language skills are of crucial importance for immigrant parents in their communication with schools (Crozier and Davies 2007) and are a good candidate for the embodied cultural capital. As far as parental education is one of the key predictors of children’s academic success (Lehmann 2009), I decided to use it as the institutionalized cultural capital. Objectified cultural capital is normally understood as physical objects, e.g. books, musical instruments or tools. For the purposes of my study, I chose family literacy practices that are tied to book ownership as objectified cultural capital. After all, reading plays a key role in cognitive development of children and offers significant benefits for learning, especially if aligned with school expectations (Notten and Kraaykamp 2010).

As for the social capital, I decided to conceptualize it as communication with teachers, keeping contact with other parents, and having large and varied social networks. Communication with teachers is vital for two reasons: on the one hand it allows parents to get timely and accurate information on how their children are doing academically and socially in school, while on the other hand it signals to teachers that parents are involved and interested in children’s learning (Lareau 2011). Keeping contact with other parents enhances the motivation and self-efficacy related to parental involvement (Curry and Holter 2015), Finally, access to large and varied social networks allows parents to advocate better on their children’s behalf in the school setting (Horvat, Weininger, and Lareau 2003). If you are friends with teachers, psychologists, or middle-class professional in broader terms, this can only help to navigate the school system better and have the feel for the game  (Bourdieu 1990). Clearly, capital approach unmasks the stark inequalities in parental involvement.

Any theory is as good as the explanation it can provide for the data collected in an empirical study. So, what did I find? Immigrant parents in my research have high levels of cultural capital, because they came to Canada as skilled migrants and due to the immigration requirements they speak English relatively well (embodied cultural capital), have high level of education (institutional cultural capital), and participate in socially desirable literacy practices (objectified cultural capital). Although most parents possess high levels of cultural capital there was a variation in the amount of social capital available to immigrant parents. Those who managed to recreate rich social networks in the new country communicated with teachers more successfully and were satisfied with school. Most importantly, further research is required to understand how the activation of social and cultural capitals by immigrant parents is met by teachers and school personnel.

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Crozier, G., & Davies, J. (2007). Hard to reach parents or hard to reach schools? A discussion of home-school relations, with particular reference to Bangladeshi and Pakistani parents. British Educational Research Journal, 33(3), 295-313.

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Vincent, C. (2017). The children have only got one education and you have to make sure it’s a good one: Parenting and parent-school relations in a neoliberal age. Gender  and Education, 29(5), 541-557.