You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information on the research summarized in this digest, please contact the authors at the addresses below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

Research on parent involvement emphasizes the role of middle class status in providing access to dominant forms of cultural and social capital (Lareau, 1989; Lareau, 2003). Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, cultural capital is defined as a set of social class based styles of behavior that are valued within dominant institutions. Social capital is the total volume of the resources of capital (e.g., economic capital and cultural capital) to which one has access through their social networks.

Researchers often view working class parents and members of racial minority groups as lacking access to the valued forms of capital. However, parents often possess distinct forms of capital that are of value within their communities. For example, within African-American communities, church culture—including prayer, call-and-response communication, and a communal ethos—is often valued and serves as an important resource that facilitates community action (Pattillo-McCoy, 1998). Unfortunately, most previous research has overlooked the importance of these nondominant forms of capital (Carter, 2003).

In the research reported here, we compare African-American and Chinese-American parent involvement. In particular, we focus on each group's involvement orientations and examine how they identify and activate resources to support their participation. We show that parent involvement orientations are rooted in nondominant/ethnic cultural capital (Takei, Clark, Shouse & Chang, 2000), which provides parents with access to familial and community-based forms of social capital. Parents use this cultural and social capital to support their educational participation.

Research Methods

The data for this study are drawn from interviews, observations, and surveys of African-American and Chinese-American parents. The data for the African-American parents come from semi-structured in-depth interviews (lasting between 1–2 hours) with 18 working and middle class parents, informal conversational interviews with parents inside schools, and participant observation conducted across seven Chicago schools and communities between 1993 and 1995. The parent interviews focused on parents' perceptions of the quality of their children's schools, their interactions with school officials, and the personal and community-based resources that supported their educational participation.

The data for the Chinese-American parents came from two sets of data collected in different time periods and geographic locations. The first set of data were collected in Honolulu from fall 1998 to spring 1999 and included participant observations at an urban elementary school and a Chinese Lutheran church, semi-structured in-depth interviews with 35 families which lasted 1.5–3 hours, numerous unstructured conversational interviews with parents, children and teachers, and a survey of 63 families in the initial stage of the study.

The second set of data on Chinese Americans was collected in the Washington, D.C., metro area from August 2002 to March 2003 through participant observation at a local Chinese school and a Chinese Baptist church (both are in a suburban location), semi-structured interviews, and unstructured on-site interviews with parents and community leaders. In this context, most of the parents were employed in professional jobs.

The authors worked separately to code and analyze data for separate projects. They then compared their findings to examine patterns that existed across the two racial/ethnic communities and among social classes within and across the communities.

Research Findings

1. Although African-American and Chinese-American parents' educational aspirations were similar, their involvement strategies were different.

Although the members of both communities held high aspirations for their children, they adopted very different approaches to parent involvement. African-American parents believed strongly in home and school-based involvement and attempted to intervene inside their children's schools. While social class within the African-American community seemed to influence this pattern, African Americans were far more likely to seek school-based involvement than Chinese-American parents.

Chinese-American parents, on the other hand, were extremely active in home-based involvement. Although they were also critical of their children's schools, they were far less likely to raise these concerns with teachers and administrators. Instead, they drew on familial and community resources to compensate for what schools lacked.

We characterize the involvement of African-American parents as “front stage/activist” involvement and the involvement of Chinese-American parents as “back stage/behind the scene.” These differences in involvement result from the racial and cultural distinctions between these groups. We argue that cultural models that emphasize getting ahead through collective struggle inform African-American parents' involvement strategies (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Fordham, 1996). The Chinese-American parents were engaged in cultural practices that honored the professional expertise of teachers and the need to access skills for successful access to social mobility while at the same time they sought to maintain the cultural integrity of their communities. We argue that this approach is a form of accommodation without assimilation (Gibson, 1988).

2. Nondominant/ethnic cultural capital can provide access to parent involvement resources (social capital) within minority communities.

Previous work on cultural capital and parent involvement has focused on dominant cultural dispositions as key to enhancing parent involvement. We have found that among the African-American and Chinese-American parents we studied, ethnic cultural capital provided access to resources for involvement. Being involved in education often requires parents to draw on community-based resources to support their participation (particularly among working class parents).

For example, parents from African-American and Chinese-American communities reported gaining child care and monetary support from family members, churches, and other significant community adults. These resources allowed parents to make needed educational investments (e.g., books and school materials), freed up their time to volunteer inside schools, and provided parents with access to supplementary educational activities for their children outside of schools.

Parents' common cultural experiences with others in their communities increased their access to community-based resources. Broad extended family networks, religious participation and culture, and communal child-rearing orientations were all forms of ethnic/nondominant cultural capital within African-American and Chinese-American communities that facilitated access to social capital, albeit in different ways.

For example, Chinese-American parents in DC had formed a set of Chinese heritage schools, which served approximately 2,000 students. The school drew together Chinese professionals from different fields and talents and offered a wide range of classes to children, parents, and grandparents. In addition to educational opportunities, they also provided a number of services such as Chinese videos, books and magazines lending, workshops on financial management and investment, magnet school or college applications, and new immigrant orientations. Through their participation in these schools, Chinese-American parents accessed important social capital to enhance their educational involvement.

3. Community-based social capital is used by African-American and Chinese-American parents (particularly working class parents) to compensate for limitations in other forms of capital.

We argue that social capital is used to compensate for limitations in other valued forms of capital. Among both working class Chinese-American parents and African-American parents, social networks, including extended kin and co-ethnic friends, helped compensate for limited money and time for educational participation. Among Chinese-American parents these networks provided access to an elaborate Chinese heritage school system that provided the broad range of social capital discussed above. Among African-American parents, extended family networks were used to provide parents with scarce time, money, and educational resources for their children. In addition, communal child-rearing orientations among African Americans allowed multiple adults to influence children's education and to reinforce parental expectations for behavior and academic achievement. In both communities, access to these resources depended on immersion in the cultural traditions of the community, making this immersion a form of cultural capital.

Implications for Teacher Preparation and School Practice

Our preliminary findings affirm the importance of recognizing the resources that exist in all communities. Too often we focus on what is lacking in children's home environments rather than on the potential resources that might exist in them. We believe that educators should:

  • View parents' distinct involvement strategies as a reflection of their cultural styles rather than their levels of investment in education.
  • Recognize the nondominant/ethnic cultural capital of parents as valuable and seek to build on it to create stronger connections between schools and communities.
  • Recognize school-based expectations of parents as one set of cultural beliefs (among several) about the appropriate role of parents in education.
  • Capitalize on community-based forms of social capital that exist in racial minority communities.


Carter, P. (2003). “Black” cultural capital, status positioning, and schooling conflicts for low-income African American youth. Social Problems, 50(1), 136–155.

Diamond, J. B. (2000). Beyond social class: Cultural resources and educational participation among low-income black parents. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 44(15), 54.

Fordham, S. (1996). Blacked out: Dilemmas of race, identity, and success at capital high. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black students' school success: Coping with the burden of “acting white”. The Urban Review, 18(3), 176–206.

Gibson, M. A. (1988). Accommodation without assimilation: Sikh immigrants in an American high school. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lareau, A. (1989). Home advantage: Social class and parent intervention in elementary education. New York: Falmer Press.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pattillo-McCoy, M. (1998). Church culture as a strategy of action in the black community. American Sociological Review, 63(6), 767–784.

Takei, Y., Clark, M. E., Shouse, R., & Chang, S. N. (2000). Academic performance of Asian American adolescents: An exploration of the relative effects of cultural and social capital. Pacific Educational Research Journal, 10(1), 23–42.

John B. Diamond
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138

Ling Wang
College of Education
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16804

Kimberly Williams Gomez
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education
University of Chicago at Chicago
1040 W Harrison M/C 147
Chicago, Il 60607

Free. Available online only.

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project