Social Capital and Latino Culture: An Ethnographic Exploration
David Chirinos
EDEP 821
George Mason University
Academic achievement gaps are complex and layered occurrences often attributed to
issues related to socioeconomic status, race, parental involvement, and equitable access to school
excellence (Reardon & Galindo, 2009; Suizzo, Pahlke, Yarnell, Chen, & Romero, 2013; Lareau,
2002). One population particularly vulnerable to disparities in academic attainment are Latinos
living in the United States. Latinos have consistently underperformed in the area of academic
achievement as gaps have been observed throughout the K-12 years, across numerous NAEP
state assessments, as well as in rates of higher education completion (Ceballo, 2004; Garcia,
Jensen, & Cuellar, 2006; National Center for Education Statistics, 2010; Reardon & Galindo,
2009). As educational psychologists and educational researchers, a need exists to better
understand the complexities associated with this issue so as to find ways through which to
ameliorate this observed occurrence. With the proportion of Latino students projected to increase
for decades to come (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008), this issue carries significance for individuals,
families, communities, states, and the nation as a whole.
Conceptual Framework
One way through which achievement gaps can be better understood is in terms of social
capital (Coleman, 1987). Social capital, a concept emanating from sociology, considers the
acquisition and utilization of resources—as well as the lack of access to resources—in terms of
both tangible and intangible assets (Portes, 1998). Among the different conceptualizations of
social capital (e.g. cultural capital, human capital, educational capital), this proposal will
consider Coleman’s (1987) conceptualization of social capital as outlined in his paper “Families
and Schools”. Here, Coleman framed social capital as the “resources which produce attitudes,
efforts, and conceptions of self” (p. 35), which are developed in the home.
Coleman furthered argued that aspects of educational deficiencies can be understood in
terms of a mismatch between the attitudes, efforts, and conception of self developed at home—
and the attitudes, efforts, and conceptions of self needed to meet the “opportunities, demands,
and rewards” (p. 35) found in school. This particular understanding of the interaction between
social capital, family home life, and educational attainment offers a unique avenue from which
the Latino achievement gap can be examined in that it allows for sociocultural variations to be
considered, in terms of the ways through which social capital is communicated in Latino homes.
In making the case that particular variations may exist in the communication of social
capital due to cultural influences, the following sociocultural assumptions are made: (a) social
and individual processes are interdependent in the construction of knowledge; (b) culture allows
for learning to take place as the result of the transformation of socially shared activities into
internalized processes; and (c) children’s learning and cognition can be shaped in accordance to a
culture’s goals and activities, with different cultures placing different emphasis on what activities
and goals are deemed valuable (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; Rogoff, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978).
Research Questions
As such, the purpose of this study is to examine the following questions: (a) what
educational values, beliefs, attitudes, experiences, stories, and conceptions of self are
communicated by parents to their children; (b) are there discernible cultural patterns that
influence what is and what is not communicated in the home; (c) do the observed cultural
patterns and forms of social capital fit with current understandings of Latino immigrant culture;
and (d) do the observed forms of social capital fit with Zimmerman’s (1989; 1990; 2000; 2008)
model of self-regulated learning in terms of beliefs, attitudes, and conceptions of self (e.g. selfefficacy, goal orientation, outcome expectations, metacognitive monitoring).
Ten Latino families will be purposely recruited based on the following criteria. First, only
families with school age children will be selected. Ideally, at least one of the children will be in
fifth grade or higher as older student are able to more meaningfully communicate and interact
with their parents. Second, families will be first generation or second generation immigrants.
This will be done as aspects of Latino culture inevitably diminish (due to acculturation) with
each passing generation. Nation of origin, time spent in the U.S. (for 1st generation families), and
legal status will not be considered as selection criterion. Participants will be recruited from local
schools, local Spanish speaking church congregations, and from local non-profit Latino
organizations (e.g. Latin American Youth Center).
Ethnographic Study
An ethnographic research design will be employed for this exploratory investigation as it
allows for the observation and interpretation of shared cultural practices, beliefs, attitudes,
experiences, feelings, and folk knowledge—aspects which are likely to influence the
communication of social capital. Within ethnographic research, this study will follow the
participant-observation model, which emphasizes the need for (a) onsite observations, (b)
prolonged data collection, (c) the search for constructed realities, (d) corroboration of field
observations through multiple methods, (e) investigation of a small number of participants, and
(f) analysis of data through interpretation of the meanings and functions of human actions
(Atkinson & Hammersley, 1993).
Research Team
Because of the many complexities and intricacies associated with the systematic planning
and execution of a prolonged ethnographic study, a multidisciplinary research team will be
assembled. An ethnographer or anthropologist will serve as co-principal investigator. This
person’s expertise will be particularly helpful in the planning stages of the project. This person
will provide training as to how to conduct this type of research. Graduate students, with both
ethnography and educational psychology backgrounds will recruited. Bilingual students
(English/Spanish) will make up roughly half of the research team members given that
participants will likely speak Spanish in their homes.
IRB authorization will be obtained prior to recruitment. Participants agreeing to study
procedures will be compensated $400 a month for the length of the study. Confidentiality will be
assured with special consideration given to potential issues regarding legal status of participants.
Consent forms and recruitment materials will be written in English and Spanish at an eighth
grade reading level. Participants will be informed that they may end participation at any time and
for any reason. Overall, participants will be informed that the goal of the study will be to
examine aspects of Latino culture in general, including facets of the Latino immigrant
experience, as well as a special focus on educational experiences and educational processes
observed in and outside the home.
Study Design
To meet the goal of prolong data collection, this study will run for a one year period.
The study will begin approximately 3 weeks before the start of the school year. Observations will
initially begin slowly (1-2 per week) while research members and families build rapport.
Initially, the bulk of observation will be conducted in the participants’ home, though some
exceptions will be made in observing field activities such as back to school night (school
registration/meet the teacher) and observing back to school shopping trips. Back to school night
will be observed in order to gain an understanding of families’ experiences in navigating initial
school interactions. Shopping trips will be observed in terms of what, if any, messages are
communicated in terms of the purpose of school or the function of school materials in facilitating
the purposes of school.
Once rapport has been established and students are attending school, families will be
observed 3-4 times a week, with most observations occurring after the students get home from
school and before students retire for bed. Special attention will be given to homework
completion during those hours as well as other educational activities that may occur (reading to
children or any other types of instruction). Educational activities will be broadly considered as
cultural interpretations of educational activities may differ from the researcher’s understanding
of education. Other forms of instruction (chores, food preparation, etc.) will be observed and
analyzed in terms of what is communicated.
There will be some weekend observations, varying between Saturdays and Sundays as
well as between mid-mornings and afternoons. These observations will be shorter in duration.
Team members will also observe a number of dinners and will attend family events (birth parties,
other social events), if invited. Dinners will be observed in terms of discussions held. Social
events will be observed in terms of the role of extended family members and family friends on
communications of social capital, if any.
For the first three months, only home observations will take place (except for field
observations of back to school night and back to school shopping trips). This will help create an
initial baseline of what is happening in the home. After that point, the study will begin to shift
towards a more participant-observation model, with the researcher designing activities to help
elicit the desired goal of observing parental communications of educational social capital. More
formal ethnographic interviews will also begin to occur after the initial baseline period, though
informal may be held during the baseline period.
A number of activities will be organized and led by the researcher in order to elicit
exchanges of educational social capital. This will be done as it is anticipated that a purely
observational (hands off) approach may not provide sufficient data for the purposes of this study.
For example, at various times during the remaining nine months, parents will be asked to teach
their children a simple school related task (lasting between 10-20 minutes). Parents will be given
notice ahead of time so that they may prepare for their mini lesson. One such instructional task
would ask parents to teach their child how to write a short story about a given subject for school.
Parents would be asked to prepare a small lesson based on what they know, including their
experiences as students. It will be explained to parents that no lengthy or elaborate preparation is
needed. The goal is for parents to try to replicate what they would normally do if their child
needed help in that given subject.
This task could take on a number of variations, including: teaching about reading
comprehension (through completion of worksheets), building vocabulary, practicing math facts
(multiplication, division tables), writing brief book/subject reports, preparing for spelling tests,
taking notes in class, studying for a test, etc. The purpose of these tasks would be to see how
parents approach the tasks, what kind of messages or ideas they communicate, what kind of
experiences they bring to the teaching tasks, and what kind of strategies they employ for
motivating or keeping the students’ focus. Parents would be advised that no attention or
judgment would be given to the correctness of the instruction or if one method is better than the
other. The focus would not be if this is done “correctly”, rather, the focus would be on how
parents approach the given topics and what forms of social capital are communicated during
these sessions.
A second set of activities would focus on motivational constructs such as self-efficacy,
goal orientation, task interest, causal attributions, as well as self-regulatory functions such as
goal setting, strategic planning, strategy use, and self-monitoring. These activities would revolve
around teaching mini lessons (5-10 minutes) as well as to react to hypothetical situations. For
instance, parents would be asked to prepare mini lessons on how they would: help motivate their
children in school, set goals for school, and how they would get their children more interested in
a given school subject. Hypothetical situations would ask parents to react to an unmotivated
child, a child who wishes to drop out of school, a child who is doing well in school, or a child
who lacks confidence in school.
A third set of activities (moderated by the researcher) would ask parents to share personal
experiences of their school days to their children. The setting for this would be informal, for
instance, a 15 minute dessert “fireside chat” would be arranged where the kids eat dessert while
the parents recall experiences or tell stories about their school days. These anecdotes could be
about a time a parent did well in school, a time when they struggled in school, what they learned
in school, what they thought about school, their interactions with their parents about school,
regrets they may have, interests they had in school, favorite subjects in school, least favorite
subjects in school, etc. These chats would be observed in terms of social capital communication
as well as for potential cultural patterns. These chats could also reveal how parents understand
the purpose of school or their views as to what they consider as valuable in school.
Field trips to educational settings would be a fourth type of activities. These trips would
have the dual purpose of facilitating educational conversations as well as to develop rapport and
enjoyment in the study. For example, one field trip would take participants and researchers to the
museum. Here, researchers would observe the conversations held (or not held) during this time.
It would be expected that walking around the museum would set prompt educational
conversations, though this may not be the case. Another trip could be to walk around a university
campus. The researchers could take a more active role in serving as a “tour guides” in pointing
out different buildings/colleges around campus and majors/careers that are under each college.
The college field trip would also be analyzed as to the conversations held (or not held) that
would be expected to be prompted as a result of this trip. Expected conversations would be about
going to college, what it takes to go to college, careers afford by college, the importance of
college, or perhaps negative aspects of college such as cost, being away from family,
responsibility, etc..
Lastly, ethnographic interviews will be administered at various points throughout the
study. Interviews will include informal conversations and structured interviews, with structured
interviews being administered towards the end of the study. Interviews will adhere to
ethnographic objectives of interpreting participants’ constructed realities. Interview questions
will center around the study’s goals.
According to Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995) ethnographic analysis is an ongoing
process that begins with notes taken in the field as well as through written memo reflections.
Once observations are complete, a systematic review of field notes and reflections will take
place. From there, open coding will be employed, followed by focused coding. Open coding will
look for ideas, themes, and issues related the study’s goals. During focused coding, a smaller set
of ideas and themes will be used to start tying together “threads”, with the eventual goal of
presenting a “woven” story about the observed social world (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw). Coding
memos and integrative memos will also facilitate the end goal by allowing the researchers to
reflect on the findings and to explore relationships among the findings that will represent that
which was studied.
Potential Results
Its hard to anticipate the results of this study as there is no literature on this subject that
can offer hints as to the results. One of the reasons why this subject interests me is that it has not
been considered, especially from a hybrid ethnography-educational psychology perspective.
Based on the literature that has considered Latino culture and aspects of education, I would
expect that distinct cultural patterns would be observed, though it’s hard to say how these
cultural patterns would influence the communication of social capital. There is the chance that
very little social capital could be communicated in Latino homes, which would be an important
(though likely controversial) finding.
One likely finding, based on the literature, is that the participants may espouse a broader
understanding of education—one which goes beyond notions of academic learning and includes
notions of respect, decorum, and proper manners. This is based on a number of findings which
have described Latina mothers to place greater value on well-behaved and respectful children,
over values of independence, autonomy, and assertiveness—values which have been positively
associated with U.S. school success (Gonzalez-Ramos, Zayas, & Cohen, 1998). However, the
way through which this cultural understanding may affect the transmission of social capital is
harder to foresee.
One limitation is that my premise for this study may be wrong. Perhaps cultural patterns
do not influence the communication of social capital. If it does, perhaps its influence is
negligible and not worthy of study. Another limitation may be in the choice of research design.
Ethnographies, though appropriate for the study of culture, are vulnerable to a number of
limitations, including: observation effects on participants (how much have I altered the
participants’ behaviors?), reliability (how valid are my interpretations), social desirability (will
participants reveal their true beliefs/actions regarding education), and generalizability (can my
observations accurately apply to the larger population of interest).
Future Directions
This subject is one in which I’m truly interested in. I believe in the power of shaping (as a
psychology undergrad, I had a Skinner box with rats and utilized principles of shaping to change
behaviors), as such, I believe that parents can shape (to a degree) things like a mastery goal
orientation, self-efficacy, a growth mindset, an incremental view of understanding, the practice
of self-reflection, an understanding of causal attributions, etc. If Vygotsky is right, then the
development of these beliefs (and conceptions of self) are subject to the effects of culture. If this
is the case, then this proposal can guide future understandings in this area of interest, something
which has not been done before.
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