Cultural Capital explored

14 October 2019

We've been exploring cultural capital at USH as we continue to develop the offer we give to students. In school, you would see the following as part of our cultural offer:

  • Reading non-fiction and classical literature
  • Watching documentaries and international films
  • Learning to play musical instruments
  • Meeting authors
  • Performing or assisting in professional arts venues
  • Going on educational visits to museums, art galleries or Science centres
  • Meeting industry-leading professionals, medal-winning athletes and world-explorers
  • Taking trips abroad

We know that things go much deeper than a list of activities and the cultural experiences teachers bring through their work also shapes and influences children, but in more nuanced ways. The cultural influencers who shape my teaching and leadership were AA Gill, Stephen Sondheim and Howard Hodgkin.  

Taken from Social Theory 'Re-wired', the following extract unpacks the origin of cultural capital and its importance:

'Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) was born to a working-class family in a small village in southern France called Denguin. Bourdieu’s father was a small farmer turned postal worker with little formal education, but he encouraged a young Bourdieu to pursue the best educational opportunities his country had to offer.

How Bourdieu Matters Today

It is hard to overestimate the influence Bourdieu has had on social theory. Bourdieu’s works have been translated in over two dozen languages and many are already considered classics in disciplines across the social sciences and humanities. Not only sociologists, but also those in anthropology, cultural studies, and education consider Bourdieu required reading for anyone trained in their disciplines. Bourdieu’s understanding of sociology as a “combat sport” that critically takes on and exposes the underlying structures of social life has also had a strong impact on the academic field, particularly in his home nation of France.

Cultural Capital

Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social class. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others—the same taste in movies, for example, or a degree from a good university—creates a sense of collective identity and group position (“people like us”). But Bourdieu also points out that cultural capital is a major source of social inequality. Certain forms of cultural capital are valued over others, and can help or hinder one’s social mobility just as much as income or wealth. According to Bourdieu, cultural capital comes in three forms—embodied, objectified, and institutionalized.

The 'Habitus'

Habitus is one of Bourdieu’s most influential yet ambiguous concepts. It refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences. Bourdieu often used sports metaphors when talking about the habitus, often referring to it as a “feel for the game.” In the right situations, our habitus allows us to successfully navigate social environments.

Habitus also extends to our “taste” for cultural objects such as art, food, and clothing. In one of his major works, Distinction, Bourdieu links French citizens’ tastes in art to their social class positions, forcefully arguing that aesthetic sensibilities are shaped by the culturally ingrained habitus. The upper-classes, for example, may have a taste for fine art because they have been exposed to and trained to appreciate it since a very early age, while working-class individuals have generally not had access to “high art” and thus haven’t cultivated the habitus appropriate to the fine art “game.” The thing about the habitus, Bourdieu often noted, was that it was so ingrained that people often mistook the feel for the game as natural instead of culturally developed. This often leads to justifying social inequality, because it is (mistakenly) believed that some people are naturally disposed to the finer things in life while others are not.'

In his Evaluations of Cultural Capital Theory, Karl Thompson agrues that:

  • Cultural capital seems more relevant now with education policies – marketisation (and free schools) gave parents and schools more freedom – middle class parents and schools could use this freedom to exlude the working classes.
  • Social capital theory is useful in explaning that privately educated children often use their social networks to get them into professions.
  • Unlike cultural deprivation theory by Bourdieu etc. we should not see working class culture as inferior or blame the working classes for the failure of their children.
  • The theory links inside and outside school factors – middle class families and middle class schools work together to exlude working class children.

And in Criticisms of Cultural Capital Theory, he says:

  • Most statistical research suggests material deprivation and economic capital are more significant factors than cultural capital in explaining class differences in educational achievement.
  • 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 changes are necessary.
Cultural Capital can be defined as the skills and knowledge which an individual can draw on to give them an advantage in social life.