Cultural capital

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Cultural Capital





The concept of cultural capital posits that the way of life of a community constitutes a dynamic structure, including a number of services, that enhances the livelihood of the people. It also forms the basis of power relations and class. The origins of the concept stem mainly from the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), who argued that it represents one of the many forms of capital that people can draw on to enhance their lives. The other forms include social capital, human capital, durable fixed capital, ecological capital, and even bodily capital. The notion of cultural capital is part of the multiple capital paradigm (OHara 2001), and one must link various capitals to comprehend macro-sociological processes such as inequality, stratification, and conflict.


There are three main types of cultural capital: cultural artifacts, institutions, and embodied capital. Cultural artifacts include reproductions of the cultural creations of society. These may be materials in museums, art galleries, and libraries; modes of dress; symbolic commodities; or modes of architecture. These artifacts can be seen as a form of embodied cultural labor, provided they truly form part of the historical or contemporaneous life process of the community. These artifacts may be critical in the study of previous cultures, particularly if there is little or no written record of cultural habits and practices. For contemporary market capitalist economies, artifacts sold for money provide a source of knowledge about the relationship between cultural and economic capitals.

Institutions provide insights into the way of life of the community. For instance, the institutions of nationalism provide insights into the way in which people bond together as a nation-state, while the institutions of education help comprehend the reproduction of knowledge and class in society. The family, as an institution, enables insights into critical forms of gender relations, kinship linkages, and networks of privilege and association. Market institutions, meanwhile, enable one to recognize how symbols, status, and financial advantage are interrelated and reproduced through historical time.

The third form of cultural capital, embodied capital, is a personal form of intergenerational transfer of networks and relations. Families, for instance, provide a series of lifestyle habits and relationships through networks, which become a sort of advance to the next generation of children. There is a tendency for these family linkages to shape peoples behavior and values from generation to generation. This relates to practices such as manners, connections, qualifications and habits of life and livelihood.

Such linkages are critical to the generation of class differences between people.


Bourdieus analysis of cultural capital has been quite successful in linking agency and structure in the determination of class, habit, and space. Class relationships are reproduced in a subtle manner through association, upbringing, emotional ties, education, and access to material resources. Individuals are as important as institutions in the generation of privilege and power.

Individuals and structures are linked through cultural capital, as shown in Figure 1. Individuals and structures interact through time in the determination of socioeconomic processes. Individuals have certain preferences, resources, sentiments, and personalities that impact on their quality of life and contribution to society. Structuresin the form of families, classes, gender, ethnicity, institutions, networks, and the gene poolalso impact on individuals. Agency and structure are linked through cultural capital, particularly through the activation of habits in particular cultural spaces.

Bourdieus notion of habitus refers to the acquired habits of dress, manners, modes of perception, ways of speaking, personal hygiene, and other traits of everyday life. Many of these habits have commonalities among certain groups, classes, and nations, and they help to bind people together in networks and institutions.

The notion of cultural space or field is also important here, for peoples everyday behavior is acted out in various relatively autonomous arenas. There are a multiplicity of such spaces, which are interrelated yet become activated through their own logic of operation and motion (see Emirbayer et al. 2005). These include the fields of legal space, economic space, social space, bureaucratic space, familial space, and so on. These can be delimited furthersocial space, for example, includes further microcosms of fashion, media, literature, art, and academia. The habits of individuals acted out in various cultural spaces demonstrate how people interact as social individuals, thus linking agency and structure.

Evidence shows that, in many contemporary societies, there are distinct differences in the way parents bring up their children, inculcating them with certain habits in familial space. Middle-class parents tend to inculcate a degree of debate and exploration in their children. They also tend to stimulate fairly wide social networks and nurture a degree of independence of thought. Working-class parents, on the other hand, tend to be more specific in their directions and discussions; have stronger family, rather than social, networks; and have children who are more dependent upon them emotionally and physically (see Egerton 1997). These variable forms of cultural capital are critical to the reproduction of privilege, advantage, and power.


Cultural capital also illuminates the role of power in society. Power is not simply a product of economic and political relationships. It also emanates more broadly from cultural associations. Power resides in the ability of people to form and maintain dynamic social networks, with reciprocity and friendships being an important part of the process. Power is enhanced by cultural capital through the building and maintaining of relationships and habits of advantage. These advantages take many forms, including material and monetary wealth, political influence, friendships and relationships, health, and safety within the society.

Those individuals and groups seeking power and authority thus either need to be ideally suited (or adapted to) the dominant modes of interplay of habitus and space, or they must try and condition peoples habitus through these cultural spaces. They can try and change the very rules through which people act out their social life, but it must be done subtly and with a thorough knowledge of the cultural way of life of the community. Similarly, policymakers must put their measures into practice within the framework of this nexus of individual-social habits and cultural space. Social capital is important in the provision of trust and sociality required to divert resources and assets in the prescribed direction.

Cultural capital is thus part of the multiple capital paradigm, which by linking agency and structure interprets relations of class, power, ethnicity, and social position. Some questions remain in areas such as class, gender, and ethnicity, with a need for more complexity and historical specificity, and for more empirical and theoretical development. Overall, though, cultural capital is a powerful mode of interpretation of structures of diversity, cooperation, and power in the contemporary world.

SEE ALSO Capital; Human Capital; Physical Capital; Skill; Social Capital; Soft Skills


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1997. The Forms of Capital. In Education: Culture, Economy, and Society, eds. A.H. Halsey et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Egerton, Muriel. 1997. Occupational Inheritance: The Role of Cultural Capital and Gender. Employment and Society 11 (2): 263282.

Emirbayer, Mustafa, and Eva M. Williams. 2005. Bourdieu and Social Work. Social Service Review 79 (4): 689724.

Gunn, Simon. 2005. Translating Bourdieu: Cultural Capital and the English Middle Class in Historical Perspective. British Journal of Sociology 56 (1): 49-64.

Lee, Jung-Sook, and Natasha K. Bowen. 2006. Parent Involvement, Cultural Capital, and the Achievement Gap Among Elementary School Children. American Educational Research Journal 43 (2): 193218.

OHara, Phillip Anthony. 2001. Wealth Distribution and Global Inequality in the Multiple Capital Paradigm. International Journal of Human Development 1 (2): 121140.

Phillip Anthony OHara

views updated


The concept of cultural capital originated in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1979, pp. 10, 12), who defined it as high cultural knowledge that ultimately redounds to the owner's financial and social advantage. An example would be knowing how to "dress for success." This cultural knowledge can pay off. Although they naturally seek competent personnel, employers also prefer executives who dress, talk, and comport themselves in accordance with their elite status. As a result, a job-seeker's sartorial knowledge commands a salary beyond what his or her productivity alone would have commanded. In effect, the well-dressed candidate gets a salary bonus. Most people do not know how to dress for success, do not even know the importance of doing so, and do not, in fact, do so. For this reason, the acquisition of high cultural knowledge and style, including stylish dress, table manners, golf, knowledge of wine, the right neighborhood, and arty chit-chat, represents a capital resource of the owner, vested in the owner, but it is not human capital. Usually human capital and cultural capital go together because people who have one usually have the other as well, but the two capitals are in principle distinct. Anyone may have human capital without cultural capital, or cultural capital without human capital. In principle, adults might acquire cultural capital by hiring a tutor (Eliza Doolittle benefited from one in My Fair Lady ). However, cultural capital is prohibitively inconvenient and expensive to acquire that way. In reality, people normally acquire cultural capital informally when they grow to maturity in advantaged socioeconomic households.

Forms of Capital

Capital: A store of value that facilitates action.

Financial capital: Money available for investment.

Physical capital: Real estate, equipment, and infrastructure of production.

Human capital: Education or training that increases productivity on the job.

Cultural capital: High cultural knowledge convertible into social and economic advantage.

Social capital: Relationships of trust embedded in social networks.

Examples of Cultural Capital

Bourdieu defines cultural capital narrowly as fluency in a society's elite culture. Fluency in low-or middle-status culture does not represent cultural capital because these cultural fluencies do not transmute into elite status; they transmute into middle or low status. Bourdieu was interested in how elites reproduced themselves from one generation to the next. High-status culture emphasizes classical art, music, dance, and literature, but it also includes furniture, architecture, cuisine, vacation resorts, and clothing. Knowledge of these arts represents capital because and to the extent that this knowledge can be turned to the mowner's financial and social advantage at multiple points in the owner's life span. For example, when Josephine Smith wears the right suit, handbag, and shoes to a job interview on Wall Street, she makes a favorable impression and lands the job. Josephine's mother and peers taught her how to dress, a culturally monitored skill that paid off when Josephine landed a lucrative job. When Josephine subsequently marries a millionaire and obtains a share of his fortune, her cultural capital has produced additional financial capital.

Upper-class people acquire cultural capital in the family and in formal schooling. When the school curriculum reinforces the home curriculum, as it routinely does for children of the affluent, students obtain additional access to their own culture in school. Conversely, when the school curriculum contradicts or subverts the home culture, as it does for poor, immigrant, or ethnic minority children, students have to master a foreign culture at school while mastering their own at home. Even if they accomplish this difficult task, poor, immigrant, and minority children still do not learn everything they need to know in order to access the upper class later in life. Schools do not teach all the cultural knowledge needed for that access. For example, they do not teach dress, table manners, and demeanor. The parallel curriculum of the upper-status home teaches children much class-linked knowledge that schools ignore. Since poor or minority children cannot acquire many forms of class-linked cultural knowledge at school or at home, this cultural knowledge is virtually impossible for them to acquire at all.

The parallel curriculum gives children of the affluent a superior endowment in cultural capital. However acquired, at home or in school or both, cultural capital is converted to social and economic advantage in several ways of which the principal is prestige diplomas. Although formal education culminates in diplomas, degrees, and certificates, cultural capital is quite different from human capital, which also emerges from formal education. The difference between human capital and cultural capital resides in how the capital benefits its owner. Human capital increases its owner's productivity, a competence employers reward with high wages. In contrast, cultural capital conveys social recognition and acceptability on the strength of which people get desirable jobs, marriages, and business contacts. Therefore, the same diploma has value as human capital and as cultural capital; and the difference depends on whether we emphasize the real vocational competencies that diploma represents or the prestige recognition it commands. When a person's education has bestowed both enhanced productivity and prestige recognition, that person has two forms of capital (human and cultural), both of which transmute into money and social networks.

Occupational Culture and Competence

Although Bourdieu analyzed the high culture of the bourgeoisie, calling this cultural capital, he neglected the occupational culture of the bourgeoisie. This disjuncture led George Farkas to complain that cultural capital ignored competence. Sociologists understand culture as a tool kit, not a veneer. Crafted for a special purpose, Bourdieu's narrow concept of cultural capital stresses aesthetic judgment as if entrepreneurs and chief executive officers (CEOs) had only to attend art openings and poetry readings. In actuality, entrepreneurs and CEOs discharge real responsibility, which requires real vocational competence. Granted, some well-connected people obtain lucrative jobs on snob appeal alone, but an economy cannot run on snob appeal. What Brigitte Berger has called "the culture of entrepreneurship" is an occupational culture, not an aesthetic culture. The occupational culture of the business class is the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values needed to run a market economy. Like its aesthetic culture, the occupational culture of the business class is transmitted from one generation to the next at home as well as in schools. Bourgeois occupational culture means cultural traits (values, skills, attitudes, knowledge) characteristic of business owners and executives around the world. A business class equips its youth with class-appropriate cultural capital, both aesthetic and vocational.

Immigrant Experience

Oddly, immigration studies have provided a favorable context for the application of cultural capital theory as well as for its criticism and improvement. This advantage arises from often-remarked disparities in socioeconomic mobility of immigrant groups. Some groups move up the social ladder more quickly than others (consider Jews, Koreans, and Cubans). Often this disparity arises because immigrants bring quite different financial resources with them. Some are wealthy on arrival, others impoverished. These cases are easy to explain. The most perplexing cases have been those in which equally impoverished immigrant groups obtain unequal socioeconomic results after one or two generations. Such cases compel attention to intergroup disparities in cultural capital. For instance, in 1900, Jewish, Polish, and Italian immigrants arrived in the United States. All were equally and wretchedly poor, but two decades later, the Jews were well ahead of the others in business ownership. Similarly, in the 1920s, southern-born black Americans and Caribbean-born black immigrants arrived in New York City. Both groups were impoverished, but the Caribbean blacks soon owned more businesses than did the Americanborn blacks. Again, in the 1960s, Cubans and Haitians arrived in Miami as impoverished immigrants, but a generation later, Cubans had built a flourishing and lucrative enclave economy whereas Haitians still worked in the informal sector.

In all these cases, socioeconomically mobile immigrant groups had more access than less mobile counterparts to vocationally relevant cultural capital. In two cases, this capital belonged to ethnic rather than class cultures, but it served nonetheless as a functional equivalent to the vocational culture of the business class. Among the Jews and the Caribbean blacks, entrepreneurship had been honed and built into the ethnic culture by centuries of harsh necessity. Although poor on arrival, they knew how to run businesses. Expropriated by the communists, Cuban business owners left their money and property in their island homeland, but they took with them their cultural capital. Thanks to this cultural knowledge, they recouped their money and property within two generations through entrepreneurship. Knowing how to run a business is an obvious advantage for socioeconomic mobility. Cultural capital's vocational component conveys exactly this know-how. Like the aesthetic knowledge that Bourdieu emphasized, this vocational capital is transmitted intergenerationally in households. Normally, we do not expect poor people to understand entrepreneurship, but infrequently they do, and, when they do, they obtain socioeconomic advantages from the knowledge.

See also Class ; Education ; Human Capital .


Berger, Brigitte. "The Culture of Modern Entrepreneurship." Chap. 1 in The Culture of Entrepreneurship, edited by Brigitte Berger. San Francisco: ICS Press, 1991.

Böröcz, József, and Caleb Southworth. "Decomposing the Intellectuals' Class Power: Conversion of Cultural Capital to Income, Hungary, 1986." Social Forces 74 (1996): 797821.

Bourdieu, Pierre. La distinction: critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979.

. "Les trois etats du capital culturel." Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales 30 (1979): 35.

DiMaggio, Paul. "Social Structure, Institutions, and Cultural Good." In Social Theory for a Changing Society, edited by Pierre Bourdieu and James S. Coleman. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

Farkas, George. Human Capital or Cultural Capital? Ethnicity and Poverty Groups in an Urban School District. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1996.

Huuskonen, Visa. "The Process of Becoming an Entrepreneur: A Theoretical Framework of Factors Influencing Entrepreneurs' Start-Up Decisions (Preliminary Results)." In Entrepreneurship and Business Development, edited by Heinz Klandt. Aldershot, U.K.: Avebury, 1993.

Lamont, Michele, and Annette Lareau. "Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps, and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments." Sociological Theory 6 (1988): 153168.

Lee, Jennifer. Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Light, Ivan H. Ethnic Enterprise in America: Business and Welfare among Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks. Los Angeles: University of California, 1972.

Light, Ivan, and Steven J. Gold. Ethnic Economies. San Diego: Academic Press, 2000.

Sowell, Thomas. Migrations and Cultures: A World View. New York: Basic, 1996.

Szelényi, Iván. Socialist Entrepreneurs: Embourgeoisement in Rural Hungary. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1988.

Ivan Light

views updated

cultural capital Pierre Bourdieu (in ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction’, 1973)
argues that middle-class parents endow their children with a cultural capital of various linguistic and cultural competences. Schools require these competences (whose content is controlled by the rich) for educational success, yet fail to teach them to working-class children. Thus, school assessment which looks neutral actually legitimates economic inequality, by transforming socio-cultural competences into hierarchies of attainment which appear to be the outcome of inequalities of natural ability.

views updated

capital, cultural See CULTURAL CAPITAL.