Critical Commentary on:
J.M. Bolivar and J.H. Chrispeels (2011), ‘Enhancing Parent Leadership Through Building Social and Intellectual Capital’, American Educational Research Journal, February 2011, Vol. 48, No.1, 4-38.
The article under review discusses parental leadership programmes within an American setting, focusing on Hispanic parents in two schools in Los Angeles. It sets out to explore theoretical concepts of social and intellectual capital in order to consider their relevance in assessing the potential effectiveness of such programmes. The authors do this, firstly, through a review of relevant literature on the subject, and, secondly, through a twelve week primary study of a specific programme. Their argument is that social and intellectual capital are important concepts for informing research and practice in the field of parent leadership. This is important as it provides explanations for new forms of community action within this context.
The Study and its Context
Bolivar and Chrispeels’s (2011) study was published in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal (http://www.aera.net/publications/?id=315). It has, unsurprisingly, an American focus. Given that this research is published by authors who are from the University of California, the research is aptly placed, but it could be challenging to transfer such findings to a different national or cultural context. Their research is outlined clearly through a description of the contextual background to the study, including the problem that low-income parents do not effectively use school resources, (p.5) and through a focusing on three key research questions. These questions focus the study on issues of how the programme in question (MALDEF) enhances parental intellectual capital; forms of parent interaction within the classes; and collective actions to emerge from the class. (p.5) The importance of the study is established through its framing within relevant literature. This focuses on discourses of parent empowerment, social and cultural capital. Each term is explained clearly, highlighting the importance of the study in relation to its contextual discourses. Parent empowerment is understood as a mode of improving collaborative possibilities for low-income families, “with social justice in mind”. (p.6) The authors explain their specific interpretation of the term, which is based on assumptions of parents as expressing individual and collective agency in such a way that does not simply reinforce existing educational power structures. They draw on other research within the field both to situate their research and validate their assumptions. Brofenbrenner’s concept of empowerment in terms of direct and indirect links to power structures (p.7) is deployed, for example, as it provides a theoretical underpinning for the possibility of such parental programmes to effect change. Social and intellectual capital are proposed as modes of increasing understanding of how collaborative action could happen in this context. This does make the assumption that factors other than economic capital are important in analysing questions of access and empowerment. The choice to focus on these factors as ‘capital’ acknowledges that they are not determining background identities or objective and neutral knowledges but areas of relative ownership where questions of exclusion and disempowerment are at stake. Social capital is understood as “the resources (power and information) present in a bounded community’s social relationships that can be used to leverage additional resources”. (p.9) The work of Coleman in particular is drawn upon here, allowing for a focus on the alteration of power relations (p.10). This offers a more positive interpretation of the potentials for collective social action as institutional change than, say, a more Bourdieu-inspired focus on educational reaffirmation of existing social inequality.
The study is given particular weight through the development of a concept of intellectual capital as separate from their definitions of the social. The authors draw on literature to define this as “the knowledge and capabilities of a bounded collective [parents in this case] with potential for collaborative action”. (p.5) It therefore goes beyond a set or network of relations to focus more on actions and effects of such groups. This separation allows for a more developed form of agency to intersect the definition of social capital, explaining, as the authors set out to do, how practical actions and outcomes can emerge. Both intellectual and social capital are explained clearly and their relevance to the study adequately described. There could be more explanation of the relation between the two types of capital they describe, as well as the relations they both bear to other definitions of economic and cultural capital. Claims to knowledge are established through drawing on these theoretical definitions and ‘applying’ them to the discourse of parent empowerment. These claims are then developed through the primary research study, which gains authority from using a variety of data from multiple sources. This includes observational study, textual study of documents and focus group interviews. These methods are employed to assess “whether and in what ways the program enhanced social and intellectual capital”. (p.13) The text addresses a specialist reader who would have prior knowledge of debates within the field of educational research but would not necessarily have previous understanding of the conceptual framework employed. This is reflected through its placement in the context of an educational journal as well as assumptions that are made and not made in the text. It is assumed, for example, that inequality of access is an issue which has already “been widely documented”, (p.5) but proposes to extend research in this field through its importing and deployment of the social and intellectual capital theory, where fewer assumptions are made on behalf of reader knowledge. It gains its authority from its situation within a field of relevant literature, proposing to add important contributions to understandings of the value of parent leadership through the use of social and intellectual capital theory.
Bolivar and Chrispeels utilised a case study design, which is an appropriate design approach for a social research study (McLelland & Bagnall, 1999). Case study designs allow for the gathering and interpretation of qualitative data through standard qualitative collection and analysis processes (Grix, 2004; Silverman, 2004). The sample is described but this seems to be a convenience sample, which is also suitable in an interpretive approach but something which could have been explored in more detail. (Holloway & Jefferson, 2000). While drawing attention to the inequality of power, it could be argued that by focusing on ‘low-income’ as a category of subject produced by the text, varying forms of capital (economic, social and intellectual) are conflated. It may not necessarily be the case, for example, that income is the primary determining factor in inequalities of institutional access, and the text does not address this. The ‘triangulation’ or mixture of data collection techniques suggests a more rounded study but there are also elements excluded from the study. There is more similarity than difference between the two selected sites, for example (p.13) leaving little scope for extending range of data. The data collection methodology is explained transparently, but in terms of analysis, the data is related to the theoretical framework already established. There is a potential problem with this methodology as it suggests that the data will inevitably ‘fit’ the framework that has already been proposed, rather than being allowed to disrupt it and suggest possibilities for reformulation. The main voices prioritised in the article are those of the researchers themselves, although they do also allow space for the parents involved to speak, using reported speech to give their data more authenticity. (p.18) It is a persuasive text, using a combination of techniques, such as graphs, direct quotation and an authoritative tone, to produce a persuasive style. In terms of who is included in the research sample, this is very specific. The relatively small sample size allows for focus and depth but not for the comparison of different groups. The respondents are all Mexican, for example, and all have Spanish as a first language, (p.12) not allowing for the analysis of other Hispanic communities, other lower-income groups or later generation native English speaking migrant communities. This also leads to methodological concerns in terms of issues of translation. In one sense, the participants are not restricted to or defined completely by pre-existing identities but are those brought together by a shared set of interests (improving their children’s education within the chosen school). The authors describe the participants as a “gathering” rather than a “group” (p.13) suggesting that it has potential to transcend definition by ethnic or socio-economic category. In another sense, however, they do form a coherent ethnic group, and this tension is not addressed in the text.
Theory plays a crucial role in the text as the main aim of the study is to employ a specific theoretical framework in order to understand the empirical data. This does lead, however, to possible generalisations being made, which are not always entirely valid. The text does not really address the dimensions of cultural capital which may already exist and may not be recognised or rewarded by the dominant political and ideological frameworks which define and shape these schools as educative environments, for example. There seems to be something of a generalisation about low and middle-income families, which does not reflect the potential micro-stratification of attitudes, beliefs and other factors that might affect parental involvement. (Pena, 2000) These other factors may not be related to income or socio-economic status (Seginer and Vermulst, 2002), and the underlying assumption that lower income families are less well educated is faint, but present, in this discourse. Furthermore, the fact that the respondents are “self-selected” (p.12) suggests that they may already have more motivation and intellectual capital than others, suggesting a possible bias in the results. The arguments made are clear, cogent and logical yet the methodological approach adopted – that of using an existing body of knowledge to “explain how and why” (p.5) the programme works leads to inevitable omissions being made as well as slightly circular method of finding what is set out to be proven. Firstly, it makes the assumption that the programme does work. Secondly, it excludes the possibility that it may work for other reasons, and thirdly it does not necessarily account for all contributing factors to inequality of access. Social and intellectual capital theory may be useful to an extent in understanding issues of empowerment but there are many other factors which are not mentioned. There is no analysis of gender, for example, suggesting that the findings should not be universalised but only account for a specific group. In order to achieve more general findings, other relevant factors (such as gender) would have to also be taken into account.
The study makes an assumption that “school policies, practices, and resources can be altered to better meet the needs of low-income communities as well as benefit students, schools and parents” (p.33). Firstly, this could perhaps be more critically interrogated, taking into account, for example, of theories of power that suggest the positions of low-income communities could be reinforced as much as changed through institutional mechanisms, of which the parenting programmes are inevitably a part. Secondly, there is also a collapse here between notions of economic and social and intellectual capital with communities being defined as ‘low-income’ rather than in terms of relative stake in other forms of capital. Thirdly, unquestioned assumptions are made of social mobility, assuming not only that low-income families share the same needs in benefiting from the educational system, but also addressing this in terms of deficit rather than raising possibilities for more radical institutional reforms in which such groups could be ‘empowered’ on their own terms. It concludes that their study has provided a “theoretical lens” (p.33) for understanding such benefits. This does not allow, however, for a reformulation of social and intellectual capital in ways which could challenge the institutional progressive development that remains as an assumption throughout. Its focus on “norms needed for participation in the dominant community” (p.34) in other words, creates a reliance on such norms and dominance, rather than allowing new forms of power to be produced. This suggests a limited form of action as a result of the study. Ultimately the study re-affirms the importance of the organisation that it sets out to study, employing theoretical methods to define and legitimate its actions in terms of production of intellectual capital. This is done in a successful, persuasive and clear manner, although its methodology leaves little scope for a more critical or questioning formulation of institutional power, its inequalities and mechanisms of exclusion. The findings are believable but in order to convince someone who was initially sceptical of its claims, more data would have to be provided, bringing other groups into the survey. More observational data could have been included to supplement the interview protocol included in the Appendix. This could have allowed for gaps and tensions between what was being said and other modes of behaviour and action.
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