Inequalities in Education: The Network Factor


Do networks matter for educational and career advancement in Singapore’s meritocratic society? How is social capital distributed in the population? What can we do to close the ‘network gap’ between social groups?

These are the thought-provoking questions addressed by Dr. Vincent Chua, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore during an engaging and highly relatable Public Lecture on the “Inequalities of Education: The Network Factor”, organized by the HEAD Foundation.

In the context of Singapore’s meritocratic society and drawing on his past research, Dr. Chua detailed his first argument by describing social capital as a resource and one that is to be competed for. The traditional domains of the study of inequality are typically economic capital and human capital, when in fact, social capital is a significant source of both. Thus, with network inequalities being an important factor shaping educational and labour market inequalities among individuals and groups, human capital, social capital and economic capital must be studied together.

Dr. Chua’s research findings point out that networks boost the educational attainment and earnings of individuals. In this case, social capital was attained through ties with educated parents which was shown to be correlated to higher educational attainment and earnings.

Based on a study done by Peter Evans and James Rauch (American Sociological Review, 2001), Singapore was identified as a Weberian society where the recruitment of workers is on the basis of credentials, especially in the state sector. On that note, Dr. Chua pointed out that Singapore was found to be among the countries with the lowest rates of contact use when it comes to individuals looking for jobs. This is because the education and labour market in Singapore is tightly coupled with more standardisation (e.g. national exams).  Hence, with grades used as an indication of future productivity, networks are less useful for job matches.

The use of contacts varied according to industries and the chances of using contacts decreased among those who work in the state sector as opposed to the private sector and among the well-educated. Interestingly, people who use contacts earn less, especially in the state sector due to the perception of networks as a way to compensate for bad grades. Hence, meritocratic characteristics (e.g., formal norms and procedures in the state, and being highly qualified) suppress the role and value of social networks.

However, Dr. Chua described job contact as only one of the ties that an individual might have. Potential social capital can bring ‘unanticipated gains’ as networks can be helpful without being mobilized, and this is seen to significantly increase the earnings of individuals especially in the state sector.

Social capital matters in a meritocracy, but in embedded and diffused ways (via potential social capital) rather than in overt ways. It is necessary to think of social capital in contingent ways. After all, the value of social capital may differ across labour markets and different kinds of social capital do different things. The value of social capital may also vary across social groups.

In the second part of his lecture, Dr. Chua addressed the distribution of social capital in the population. He argued that network differences are categorical and that they unfold along the lines of gender, race and class.

‘It is the interplay between both race and gender that produce inequalities in Education,’ he posited. Some of the significant findings from his research are that Chinese and well-educated people have the greatest access to potential social capital. In comparison, Malay men have lower amounts of social capital than Malay women and Malay men also have less contact with people in high status occupations than other race-gender combinations. A closer look at Malay men reveals unequal network payoffs, whereby the positive effects are less for Malay men than they are for other combinations of gender and race. Hence, even though knowing a university graduate increases social capital, rates of increase are not equal among different gender-race pairings.

In the third part of his lecture, Dr. Vincent Chua shared ideas on how we could close the network gap by ensuring equitable access to social contexts that produce social capital. As education is an important source and site of social capital, equalizing access to educational resources and arenas can in turn equalize access to social capital. The good news, from research (using 2005 Singapore data), is that these contexts are producing social capital more efficaciously (at a faster rate) for minorities and females than for majorities and men. Hence, by narrowing the gaps in access to organisations that facilitate social capital among gender and ethnic groups, like universities, paid work, and voluntary associations, the ‘network gap’ can be narrowed.

After the lecture, Dr. Vincent Chua engaged with the audience as he answered several questions on a wide array of issues that were brought up. Among them were issues related to his prior research such as the impact of attending an elite school as compared to a neighbourhood school, the need to look at race and class as interconnected, the impact of cultural norms in shaping our interactions with one another, how those who missed opportunities to acquire social capital can catch up, technology as an equalizer, and on whether community centres facilitate a higher level of integration and increase chances of expanding one’s social network across ethnic groups.

Dr Vincent Chua

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore

Vincent Chua is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.

He has written extensively on the social networks and social capital of Singapore, publishing his works in highly ranked academic journals such as Social Networks (3 times), Social Science Research, Current Sociology, Sociological Perspectives, American Behavioral Scientist, Comparative Sociology, Asian Ethnicity, and International Studies in the Sociology of Education, all as sole- or first-author.

He has also written a well-read chapter on ‘Personal Communities’ for the Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis (2011). In 2015, he edited two special issues for the American Behavioral Scientist on the ‘Social Networks of East and Southeast Asia’ (with Barry Wellman). He has also recently published a chapter on East Asian networks in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. He has served as a peer reviewer for a wide range of academic journals, having reviewed some 40 original articles since 2011.