What is Cultural Capital?

The term capital is usually associated with a narrowly defined economic category of monetary exchange for profit. However, Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital is an attempt to expand the category of capital to something more than just the economic and to identify culture as a form of capital. Bourdieu includes social capital alongside cultural capital and has also written more generally of symbolic capital and more specifically of linguistic capital. However, what all Bourdieu's capitals share is that each requires, and is the product of, an investment of an appropriate kind and each can secure a return on that investment.

As with all the other capitals, Bourdieu's concern in relation to cultural capital was with its continual transmission and accumulation in ways that perpetuate social inequalities. Bourdieu sees the concept of cultural capital as breaking with the received wisdom that attributes academic success or failure to natural aptitudes, such as intelligence and giftedness. Bourdieu explains school success by the amount and type of cultural capital inherited from the family milieu rather than by measures of individual talent or achievement. For him, ability is socially constructed and is the result of individuals having access to large amounts of cultural capital. Ability is itself the product of an investment of time and cultural capital. Cultural capital encompasses a broad array of linguistic competencies, manners, preferences, and orientations, which Bourdieu (1977, p. 82) terms "subtle modalities in the relationship to culture and language." Bourdieu identifies three variants of cultural capital: first, in the embodied state incorporated in mind and body; second, in the institutionalized state, that is, in institutionalized forms such as educational qualifications; and third, in the objectified state, simply existing as cultural goods such as books, artifacts, dictionaries, and paintings (Bourdieu, 1986).

Cultural capital is not the only capital accruing to individuals. It is primarily a relational concept and exists in conjunction with other forms of capital. Therefore, it cannot be understood in isolation from the other forms of capital that, alongside cultural capital, constitute advantage and disadvantage in society. As well as cultural capital, these include economic, symbolic, and social capital. Social capital is generated through social processes between the family and wider society and is made up of social networks. Economic capital is wealth either inherited or generated from interactions between the individual and the economy, while symbolic capital is manifested in individual prestige and personal qualities, such as authority and charisma. In addition to their interconnection, Bourdieu envisages a process in which one form of capital can be transformed into another. For example, economic capital can be converted into cultural capital, while cultural capital can be readily translated into social capital.

According to Bourdieu (1993), the overall capital of different fractions of the social classes is composed of differing proportions of the various kinds of capital. It is mainly in relation to the middle and upper classes that Bourdieu elaborates this variation in volume and composition of the four types of capital. For example, individuals can be adjacent to each other in social space yet have very different ratios of economic to cultural capital. These differences are a consequence of complex relationships between individual and class trajectories. Moreover, the value attached to the different forms of capital are stakes in the struggle between different class fractions. Bourdieu (1993) uses the analogy of a game of roulette to describe how some individuals might "play."

Just as those with lots of red tokens and few yellow tokens will not play in the same way as those with lots of yellow and few red tokens, so also those with lots of economic capital and little cultural capital will play differently than those with lots of cultural but little economic capital. And, just as people with more yellow tokens will stake more on the yellow squares, so also will people with more cultural capital stake on the educational system. For Bourdieu, all goods, whether material or symbolic, have an economic value if they are in short supply and considered worthy of being sought after. He describes a process in which classes invest their cultural capital in academic settings. Because the upper, and to a lesser extent the middle, classes have the means of investing their cultural capital in the optimum educational setting, their investments are extremely profitable. From this perspective, educational institutions can be viewed as mechanisms for generating social profits.

Bourdieu argues that all his concepts should be regarded not as ideas as such but as a method and a way of thinking. He urges that it is better that concepts such as cultural capital be polymorphic, supple, and adaptable rather than defined, calibrated, and used rigidly. In Bourdieu's own work, there are a number of different understandings of cultural capital that span cognitive structures, knowledge generally, and behavioral dispositions. The concept can shift in meaning from one piece of Bourdieu's writing to another, at times conceived in terms of linguistic competencies and academic style and at other times as tastes and consumption patterns. The same diversity characterizes empirical work that attempts to examine the impact of cultural capital within education. As a result, there is a level on which cultural capital can be all things to all people, and this constitutes both its appeal and a danger.

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Comments 15 comments

Dissertating 7 years ago

Thank you so much for the great overview!

It really helped to clarify some things:)

Dissertating 7 years ago

Thank you so much for the great overview!

It really helped to clarify some things:)

mzronny profile image

mzronny 6 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

Thanks this helps out with a paper I have to work on for English.

Vanneda Andrade 6 years ago

thanks this had helped me a lot on my project.

once again, thanks.

Vannneida Andrade

Rebecca 5 years ago

OMG thank you so much for explaining this in plan English, i was having so much trouble getting my head around the concept

Laxmi 5 years ago

good explaination

RZP 4 years ago

this was too easy to understand. next time, could you be more convoluted and French-like?


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