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The term cultural capital refers to non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Examples can include education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance.
Cultural capital (French: le capital culturel) is a sociological concept that has gained widespread popularity since it was first articulated by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron first used the term in "Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction" (1973). In this work he attempted to explain differences in children's outcomes in France during the 1960s. It has since been elaborated and developed in terms of other types of capital in The Forms of Capital (1986); and in terms of higher education, for instance, in The State Nobility (1996). For Bourdieu, capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation (cited in Harker, 1990:13) and cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers power and status.
In The Forms of Capital (1986), Bourdieu distinguishes between three types of capital:
Later he adds symbolic capital (resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition) to this list.
Cultural capital has three subtypes: embodied, objectified and institutionalised (Bourdieu, 1986:47). Bourdieu distinguishes between these three types of capital:
The concept of cultural capital is fundamentally linked to the concepts of fields and habitus. These three concepts have been continually developed throughout all of Bourdieu’s work. A field can be any structure of social relations (King, 2005:223). It is a site of struggle for positions within that field and is constituted by the conflict created when individuals or groups endeavor to establish what comprises valuable and legitimate capital within that space. Therefore one type of cultural capital can be at the same time both legitimate and not, depending on the field in which it is located. It can be seen therefore, that the legitimation of a particular type of cultural capital is completely arbitrary. The power to arbitrarily determine what constitutes legitimate cultural capital within a specific field is derived from symbolic capital.
Habitus is also important to the concept of cultural capital, as much of cultural capital can be derived from an individual’s habitus. It is often defined as being dispositions that are inculcated in the family but manifest themselves in different ways in each individual. (Harker, 1990:10; Webb, 2002:37; Gorder, 1980:226). It is formed not only by the habitus of the family (Harker et al., 1990:11) but also by the objective chances of the class to which the individual belongs (King, 2005:222), in their daily interactions (Gorder, 1980:226) and it changes as the individual’s position within a field changes (Harker, 1990:11).
The concept of cultural capital has received widespread attention all around the world, from theorists and researchers alike. It is mostly employed in relation to the education system, but on the odd occasion has been used or developed in other discourses. Use of Bourdieu’s cultural capital can be broken up into a number of basic categories. First, are those who explore the theory as a possible means of explanation or employ it as the framework for their research. Second, are those who build on or expand Bourdieu’s theory. Finally, there are those who attempt to disprove Bourdieu’s findings or to discount them in favour of an alternative theory. The majority of these works deal with Bourdieu’s theory in relation to education, only a small number apply his theory to other instances of inequality in society.
Those researchers and theorists who explore or employ Bourdieu’s theory use it in a similar way as it was articulated by Bourdieu. They usually apply it uncritically, and depending on the measurable indicators of cultural capital and the fields within which they measure it, Bourdieu’s theory either works to support their argument totally, or in a qualified way. These works to help portray the usefulness of Bourdieu’s concept in analysing (mainly educational) inequality but they do not add anything to the theory.
One work which does employ Bourdieu’s work in an enlightening way is that of Emirbayer & Williams (2005) who use Bourdieu’s notion of fields and capital to examine the power relations in the field of social services, particularly homeless shelters. The authors talk of the two separate fields that operate in the same geographic location (the shelter) and the types of capital that are legitimate and valued in each. Specifically they show how homeless people can possess “staff-sanctioned capital” or “client-sanctioned capital” (2005:92) and show how in the shelter, they are both at the same time, desirable and undesirable, valued and disparaged, depending on which of the two fields they are operating in. Although the authors do not clearly define staff-sanctioned and client-sanctioned capital as cultural capital, and state that usually the resources that form these two capitals are gathered from a person’s life as opposed to their family, it can be seen how Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital can be a valuable theory in analysing inequality in any social setting.
A number of works expand Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital in a beneficial manner, without deviating from Bourdieu’s framework of the different forms of capital. In fact, these authors can be seen to explore unarticulated areas of Bourdieu’s theory as opposed to constructing a new theory. For instance, Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch (1995:121) examine how those people with the desired types of cultural (and linguistic) capital in a school transform this capital into “instrumental relations” or social capital with institutional agents who can transmit valuable resources to the person, furthering their success in the school. They state that this is simply an elaboration of Bourdieu’s theory. Similarly, Dumais (2002) introduces the variable of gender to determine the ability of cultural capital to increase educational achievement. The author shows how gender and social class interact to produce different benefits from cultural capital. In fact in Distinction (1984:107), Bourdieu states “sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity”. He simply did not articulate the differences attributable to gender in his general theory of reproduction in the education system. What allows a certain thing to exist, or not exist....that is the question.
On the other hand, two authors have introduced new variables into Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. Emmison & Frow’s (1998) work centers on an exploration of the ability of Information Technology to be considered a form of cultural capital. The authors state that “a familiarity with, and a positive disposition towards the use of bourgeoisie technologies of the information age can be seen as an additional form of cultural capital bestowing advantage on those families that possess them”. Specifically computers are “machines” (Bourdieu, 1986:47) that form a type of objectified cultural capital, and the ability to use them is an embodied type of cultural capital. This work is useful because it shows the ways in which Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital can be expanded and updated to include cultural goods and practices which are progressively more important in determining achievement both in the school and without.
Hage uses Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital to explore multiculturalism and racism in Australia. His discussion around race is distinct from Bourdieu’s treatment of migrants and their amount of linguistic capital and habitus. Hage actually conceives of “whiteness” (in Dolby, 2000:49) as being a form of cultural capital. ‘White’ is not a stable, biologically determined trait, but a “shifting set of social practices” (Dolby, 2000:49). He conceptualizes the nation as a circular field, with the hierarchy moving from the powerful center (composed of ‘white’ Australians) to the less powerful periphery (composed of the ‘others’). The ‘others’ however are not simply dominated, but are forced to compete with each other for a place closer to the centre. This use of Bourdieu’s notion of capital and fields is extremely illuminating to understand how people of non-Anglo ethnicities may try and exchange the cultural capital of their ethnic background with that of ‘whiteness’ to gain a higher position in the hierarchy. It is especially useful to see it in these terms as it exposes the arbitrary nature of what is “Australian”, and how it is determined by those in the dominant position (mainly ‘white’ Australians).
John Taylor Gatto writes a piece in Harper's issue in 2003, Against School. Gatto addresses issues over education in modern schooling as a retired school teacher. The relation of cultural capital can be linked to Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education, which makes clear how modern American schooling is now what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s. The objective was to divide children into sections by distributing children into subjects by age groups and common test scores. Inglis introduces six basic functions for modern schooling. Functions three four and five are most related to cultural capital because they describe the manner in which schooling enforces children's cultural capital from a young age. Below are functions three to five from Gatto's issue: 3. The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student's proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. 4. The differentiating function. Once their social role has been "diagnosed," children are to be sorted by role and trained only as far as their destination in the social machine merits—and not one step further. 5. The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin's theory of natural selection as applied to what he called "the favored races." In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempt to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit—with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That's what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: "it was the dirt down the drain." These three functions are directly related to cultural capital because through schooling children are discriminated by social class and cognitively placed into the destination that will make them fit to sustain that social role as they grow. They will be lead down the path into the class they will belong to and during the fifth function will be directly undesirable to the more privileged set of children and be even furthermore pushed down the ladder.
Criticisms of Bourdieu's concept have been made on many grounds, including a lack of conceptual clarity. Perhaps due to this lack of clarity, researchers have operationalised the concept in diverse ways, and have varied in their conclusions. While some researchers may be crictised for using measures of cultural capital which focus only on certain aspects of 'highbrow' culture, this is a criticism which could also be leveled at Bourdieu's own work. Several studies have attempted to refine the measurement of cultural capital, in order to examine which aspects of middle-class culture actually have value in the education system.
It has been observed that Bourdieu's theory, and in particular his notion of habitus, is entirely deterministic, leaving no place for individual agency or even individual consciousness. Although Bourdieu claimed to have transcended the dichotomy of structure and agency, this is not necessarily convincing. For example, the Oxford academic John Goldthorpe has long argued that:
"Bourdieu’s view of the transmission of cultural capital as a key process in social reproduction is simply wrong. And the more detailed findings of the research, as noted above, could then have been taken as helping to explain just why it is wrong. That is, because differing class conditions do not give rise to such distinctive and abiding forms of habitusas Bourdieu would suppose; because even within more disadvantaged classes, with little access to high culture, values favouring education may still prevail and perhaps some relevant cultural resources exist; and because, therefore, schools and other educational institutions can function as important agencies of re-socialisation – that is, can not only underwrite but also in various respects complement, compensate for or indeed counterfamily influences in the creation and transmission of “cultural capital”, and not just in the case of Wun-derkinderbut in fact on a mass scale." 
Bourdieu has also been criticised for his lack of consideration of gender. Kanter (in Robinson & Garnier, 1986) point out the lack of interest in gender inequalities in the labour market in Bourdieu's work. However, Bourdieu addressed the topic of gender head-on in his 2001 book Masculine Domination. Bourdieu stated on the first page of the prelude in this book that he considered masculine domination to be a prime example of symbolic violence.