The concept of cultural capital, which examines the interactions of culture with the economic class system, originated with French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron. Although conceived within the context of French culture, much of Bourdieu’s writing has been translated into English, resulting in the extensive use of his concept in sociological and educational research in the United States and elsewhere.
In “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” Bourdieu sought to understand why children from different social classes in the 1960s exhibited unequal scholastic achievement. He examined how children from the upper class profit in school settings from the activation and distribution of cultural knowledge their parents directly transmitted to them.
In a subsequent writing, “The Forms of Capital,” in 1983, Bourdieu discussed three interrelated and inextricably linked types of capital—economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Cultural capital similarly encompasses three forms: the embodied state, the objectified state, and the institutionalized state.
In its most fundamental form, cultural capital is “linked to the body,” partly unconscious and acquired early on in life. Individuals must often exert effort to incorporate it. In his description of embodied cultural capital, Bourdieu borrowed a related concept, “habitus.” Habitus can be understood as culturally learned performances that take the form of taken-for-granted bodily practices, ways of thinking, dispositions, or taste preferences. Embodied capital includes such things as manners, habits, physical skills, and styles that are so habitually enacted as to be virtually invisible. Embodied capital enacts values and tendencies socialized from one’s cultural history that literally become part of the individual. Knowledge itself, Bourdieu suggested, is actively constructed as habitus, influenced by individual cultural history, and available to be mobilized by experiences in everyday life.
Things or possessions owned or acquired by people are objectified capital, but the objectified form of cultural capital cannot be understood without acknowledging its relationship to embodied capital and habitus. This form of capital is not of the body but rather lies outside of the body. The concept is similar to the Marxist or economist concept of capital: things that can be used, exchanged, or invested and may provide an advantage in societal interactions. Individual persons are not the only possessors of objectified capital. Social institutions and social systems acquire objectified capital that affects their value and social status, for example, the built environment of schools and the social networks and connections of students, faculty, and alumni. Objectified capital operates to maximize benefits in a wide variety of social situations.
Institutionalized cultural capital manifests as academic qualifications that recognize and legitimate the embodied and objectified forms of cultural capital possessed by a person. Institutionally sanctioned capital implies what Bourdieu called “cultural competence.” Therefore, persons possessing academic qualifications can be compared and exchanged, and monetary value can be placed on their qualifications. Bourdieu asserted that the value of institutionalized cultural capital is determined only in relation to the labor market, where the exchange value of cultural capital is made explicit.
Cultural Capital and Societal Consequences
In all its forms cultural capital is an accumulation of resources that cannot be acquired as instantaneously as economic capital. Resources acquired over time can, theoretically, be mobilized and invested to gain an advantage in various fields. Fields, or social contexts, in Bourdieu’s use of the term, are complex and fluid institutions, customs, and social rules. Depending on the field in which one is operating, the value of the person’s cultural capital changes. The social issues where the concept of cultural capital is helpful include social class, education, inequality, power, and exclusion.
Cultural capital becomes mobilized and reproduced through primary and secondary socialization processes. For this reason childrearing practices and parental involvement in schools have been extensively investigated. Various forms of cultural capital, when activated through interaction with social institutions, may be valued unequally. For example, schools may not reward the embodied capital of working-class parents who practice rigid distinctions between work and play. Social institutions reward, ignore, or punish different types of cultural capital, thereby creating and perpetuating inequality.
Uses and Misuses of Cultural Capital
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital is fluid and multidimensional, with various forms nested in such a way that they are inseparable within the individual; however, the concept also evolved over time in his writings. Moreover, as a “grand theory” in the sociological tradition of Karl Marx and Talcott Parsons, cultural capital has been critiqued for the overabundance of definitions and lack of empirical referents. Application and misuse of the concept of cultural capital has led to confusion and a lack of clarity as to what the term actually means.
The use of the concept of cultural capital, as intended by Bourdieu, is paramount to the explanation and description of one vein of influential factors relating to social problems and issues in the social sciences and in educational research, in particular. Cultural capital harnesses the intrapersonal as well as the extrapersonal knowledge and experiences that help shape a person’s interaction with others and with social institutions, such as the school. However, if defined too narrowly, as in the case of deeming valuable only the cultural capital of the upper class, maximal potential of the concept cannot be reached. Given the social diversity of U.S. society, what constitutes cultural capital should be examined in context and both inside and outside the boundaries of social class.
One major weakness with respect to the use of cultural capital in the exploration of social problems is that so many people misunderstand the concept and use it within a deficit paradigm to point out the failures of working-class parents to properly educate their children. Therefore, it is important for researchers and practitioners to identify both the positive and negative aspects of cultural capital from all types of social groups. This practice can give these aspects value, broaden the understanding of an individual’s interactions with social institutions, and give strength to the concept of cultural capital.
The versatility of the concept of cultural capital provides fertile ground for future research across disciplines and is especially useful in the fields of education and sociology. The notion of cultural capital is also connected to discussions of social, intellectual, and human capital. Future research that examines these connections will further develop the concept of cultural capital and its potential value for understanding current social issues.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” Pp. 487-511 in Power and Ideology in Education, edited by J. Karabel and A. H. Halsey. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 241-58 in Handbook for Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood.
- Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron.  1990. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. Trans. Richard Nice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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Cultural Capital can be defined as the skills and knowledge which an individual can draw on to give them an advantage in social life. In this post, I explore Bourdieu’s foundational concept of the Habitus and then look at how cultural capital can give children an advantage in education.
This is in a bit more depth than you would usually get on a regular A level course.
Capital can be defined as any assets that can improve your life chances.
Cultural Capital – having the skills, knowledge, norms and values which can be used to get ahead in education and life more generally.
Social Capital – possession of social contacts that can ‘open doors’.
Cultural Capital Theory is a Marxist theory of differential educationl achievement. In contrast to cultural deprivation theory, cultural capital theory does not see working class culture as inferior, or lacking in any way, it just sees it as different to middle class culture. Instead of blaming working class underachievement on flawed working-class culture, cultural capital theory focuses on the dominance of middle class culture in society and social institutions.
In short, middle class children are more likely to succeed because the education system is run by the middle classes and works in their interests. The middle classes are able to define their own culture as superior and thus working class culture and working class children are marginalised in the education system and end up underachieving.
Pierre Bourdieu and The Habitus
The Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is the theorist most closely associated with developing the concept of cultural capital and applying it to education.
Bourdieu argued that each class has its own cultural framework, or set of norms, values and ideas which he calls the habitus. This habitus contains a set of assumptions about what counts as good and bad taste which influences the kind of leisure activities different classes engage in, the kind of places they visit, where they go on holiday, the kind of television programmes they are likely to watch, what kinds of books they are likely to read and the type of music they are likely to listen to.
The middle class habitus places much more value on the following kinds of activities, and thus these are the kinds of activities which middle class children are more likely to be exposed to compared to working class children:
Reading non-fiction and classical literature rather than pop literature
Watching documentaries rather than soap operas
Learning to play classical instruments (e.g. The Piano)
Going on educational visits – to museums and art galleries for example
Going on holidays abroad (to ‘broaden horizons’).
Exposure to the above activities provides middle class children with ‘cultural capital’ – many of the above activities are inherently educational in nature and provide middle class children with skills and knowledge which give them an advantage at school. This knowledge can either be specific – such as with reading non-fiction, or more general – such as cultural trips providing children with a sense of independence and self-confidence.
Middle class culture is also the dominant culture in most schools, and schools place high value on the above types of middle class skills and knowledge. Middle class children thus ‘just fit in’ with middle class schools, they are at home in a middle class environment, they don’t need to do anything else other than be themselves in order to belong and thrive at school.
In contrast, working class culture (with its immediate gratification and restricted speech codes) is seen as inferior by most schools. The default assumption of the school in regards to working class children is that school is somewhere where working class children are taught to be more middle class – thus by default working class culture is devalued and working class children are more likely to struggle in education as a result.
One important (and easy to undersand) aspect of cultural capital theory is educational capital – middle class parents are educated to a higher level than working class parents (they are more likely to have university degrees) – an obvious advantage of this is that they are more able to help children with homework throughout their school careers, but the are also more likely to socialise their children into thinking that going to university is a normal part of life – and thus good GCSEs and A levels are a necessity rather than being a choice.
Research on Cultural Capital (look up the following)
- Dianna Reay – Middle Class Mothers Make The Difference
- Stephen Ball – The 1988 Education Act gave middle class parents more choice
- Alison Sullivan – A Quantitative Study of how cultural capital effects 400 children
- Why do Working Class Kids Lack Aspiration (Broad support for Cultural Capital Theory)
Evaluations of Cultural Capital Theory
Cultural capital seems more relevant now with neoliberal education policies – marketisation (and free schools) gave parents and schools more freedom – middle class parents and schools use this freedom to exlude the working classes.
Social capital theory is useful in explaning the punishingly depressing fact that privately educated children often use their social networks to get internships to get them into the ‘professions’.
Unlike cultural deprivation theory Bourdieu etc. do not see working class culture as inferior or blame the working classes for the failure of their children.
The theory links indside and outside school factors – middle class families and middle class schools work together to exlude working class children (espeically see Ball’s idea about the school-parent alliance).
The theory may be more relevant now with the establishment of Free Schools – Only middle class parents really have the cultural capital necessary to set up Free Schools.
Criticisms/ Limitations of Cultural Capital Theory
Most statistical research suggests material deprivation and economic capital are more significant factors than cultural capital in explaining class differences in educational achievement.
It may be unfair to blame schools for being biased against working class children – many schools put extra resources into helping working class children.
From a research methods point of view, it is more difficult to research and test out some aspects of cultural capital theory – how do you measure the effect of piano lessons on educational achievement for example?
If cultural deprivation theory is true – there are no practical solutions to reducing class inequalities in education within the existing system – more radical (revolutionary?) changes are necessary.
Cultural Capital Theory – A Summary of The Key Ideas:
Middle Class Socialisation = Cultural Advantage– Literature, Classical Music and Museums
Middle Class Parents better educated = help with homework/ University seen as necessary
Stephen Ball – Skilled Choosers and the School Parent Alliance
Social Capital = Internship in friends Dad’s Law Firm = UNFAIR
Positive Evaluation – Blames the middle classes/ More relevant with 1988 and Free Schools
Negative Evaluation – Money matters more/ no practical solutions to WC failure.
Examples of Cultural Capital in Action
Parents encouraging their children to read.
Parents taking their children on a trip to a museum.
Parents taking their children on a cultural sight seeing tour abroad.
Parents encouraging their children to learn the Piano.
Parents helping their children with homework.
Parents using their research skills to research which school to send their child to.
Parents phoning the school to get their children extra support lessons.
Parents taking their child for a dyslexia test to get them extra time in exams.
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