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Cultural capital is a concept that was first developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and has become an important component in analyses of culture, social class, and inequality. Cultural capital is one of many forms of capital – economic, social, symbolic – that individuals draw from to achieve upward mobility, gain distinction, and enhance their lives. Being ”rich” or ”high” in cultural capital means to possess knowledge and understanding of certain cultural products and practices. In this sense, ”accumulating,” i.e. knowing and learning about, such cultural things as language, food, music, art, literature, and clothing is similar to accumulating economic capital (money, property) in that individuals can use them to achieve higher status within a given field.
Cultural capital exists in three forms. The first is the ”embodied state.” The accumulation of cultural capital begins at birth in the space of the family. Individuals essentially ”inherit” certain practices such as habits, manners, speech patterns, and lifestyle from their families. They ”embody” these cultural practices that remain with them for long periods of time.
The second form in which cultural capital exists is the ”objectified state.” This includes material objects – e.g. paintings, writings, buildings – that have economic (material) as well as symbolic (non-material) value. For example, a bottle of wine has material value (price) and an individual need only possess a degree of economic capital (money) to obtain it. But wine also has certain symbolic properties that give it high nonmaterial value (vintage, region, grape varietal, actual taste, etc.). In order to fully use this object for personal advantage or gain (i.e. to enhance one’s social status vis-a-vis communities of wine aficionados), one must not only possess the means to obtain its material contents (economic capital), but also possess the means to understand its symbolic contents (cultural capital). In other words, material objects have embodied cultural capital that grants them status beyond their material worth.
The third form is the ”institutionalized state.” After the family, cultural capital is distributed in many ways and in a great number of spaces, or formal institutions. The most common social structure in which cultural capital is embedded is education. The transmission of cultural capital through the university (the degree) legitimates its bearer, as opposed to the self-learned person, whose cultural capital can always be questioned. The university becomes a universally recognized guarantor of an individual’s cultural capital.
As these different states imply, cultural capital is very much related to other forms of capital. In general, possessing high economic capital correlates strongly with possessing high cultural capital, but this is not always the case. For example, academics are generally high in cultural capital but relatively low in economic capital, whereas professional athletes are generally high in economic capital and low in cultural capital (Thornton 1996). Most importantly, it is the relationships between the forms of capital that leads to the ”reproduction” of the social world. Universities, for example, can be prohibitive to certain social groups in terms of the amount of capital that they require for admission: economic (tuition), cultural (language skills, study habits), and social (networks, communities). High levels of each form of capital enhance one’s ability to attend elite schools, which leads to the further accumulation and legitimization of cultural capital. And one can transfer such knowledge towards the accumulation of economic capital.
Cultural capital adds an important dimension to our understanding of social class and inequality. It demonstrates how people can possess power and achieve high status and be denied access to power and status in significant ways other than material wealth. Cultural capital also provides an insightful bridge for the gap between the fundamental sociological concepts of structure and agency. While individuals behave as agents with embodied cultural practices, they only accumulate such knowledge through action within social structures (e.g. the family, education).
- Thornton, S. (1996) Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan Press, London.
- Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In Richardson, J. (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood, New York, pp. 241-58.
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