Pierre Bourdieu cultural social capital


Sharad Mishra,

Hidayattullah National Law University, Raipur




Since Bourdieu introduced the terms cultural capital, habitus and social capita into the language of sociology nearly 30 years ago, research in the sociology of education has flourished in attempts to define, outline, and provide empirical support for Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction. In this paper, I provide a brief overview of the theory, and explain the outline of some of these concepts. Cultural capital refers to the things people ‘have’ (including both objectified/material cultural capital, i.e., books, and embodied cultural capital, i.e. knowledge) and habitus refers the things people ‘do’ (their regular, embodied forms of behaviour). There are basically four forms of capital according to Pierre Bourdieu, that are; (a) Economic capital; (b) Cultural capital: embodied (in persons), objectified (e.g. art), institutionalised (e.g. university degrees); (c) Social capital: resources grounded in durable exchange-based networks of persons; (d) Symbolic capital: manifestation of each of the other forms of capital when they are naturalised on their own terms.





Pierre Bourdieu was a French Sociologists, anthropologists and philosopher. Pierre Felix Bourdieu was born in Denguin, in Southern France on 1 August 1930, to a postal worker and his wife. He married Marie-Claire Brizard in 1962. He was educated at the lycée in Pau, after getting his aggregation, Bourdieu worked as a lycée teacher at Moulins from 1955 to 1958 when he then took a post as lecturer in Algiers. During the Algerian War in 1958-1962, Bourdieu undertook the ethnographic research into the clash through a study of the Kabyle peoples, of the Berbers laying the groundwork for his anthropological reputation. The result was his first book, Sociologie de L'Algerie (The Algerians), which was an immediate success in France and published in America in 1962.

In 1960 Bourdieu returned to the University of Paris before gaining a teaching position at the University of Lille where he remained until 1964. From 1964 onwards Bourdieu held the position of Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (the future Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Socials), in the VIe section, and from 1981, the Chair of Sociology at the College de France, in the VIe section (held before him by Raymond Aron and Maurice Halbwachs). In 1968, he took over the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, the research center that Aron had founded, which he directed until his death.


In 1975, with the research group he had formed at the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, he launched the interdisciplinary journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, with which he sought to transform the accepted canons of sociological production while buttressing the scientific rigor of sociology. In 1993 he was honored with the "Médaille d'or du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique” ( CNRS). In 1996, he received the Goffman Prize from the University of California, Berkeley and in 2001 the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.  Bourdieu died of cancer at the age of 71.


Bourdieu pioneered investigative frameworks and terminologies such as cultural, social, and symbolic capital, and the concepts of habitus, field or location, and symbolic violence to reveal the dynamics of power relations in social life. His work emphasized the role of practice and embodiment or forms in social dynamics and worldview construction, often in opposition to universalized Western philosophical traditions. He built upon the theories of Ludwig Wittingstein, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, Georges Canguilhem, Karl Marx, Gaston Bachelard, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Erwin Panofsky, and Marcel Mauss. A notable influence on Bourdieu was Blaise Pascal, after whom Bourdieu titled his Pascalian Meditations.


Bourdieu rejected the idea of the intellectual "prophet," or the "total intellectual," as embodied by Sartre. His best known book is Distinction: A social Critique of the judgement of Taste, in which he argues that judgments of taste are related to social position. His argument is put forward by an original combination of social theory and data from surveys, photographs and interviews, in an attempt to reconcile difficulties such as how to understand the subject within objective structures. In the process, he tried to reconcile the influences of both external social structures and subjective experience on the individual. 



French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed the concepts of ‘habitus’ and cultural capital to explain the ways in which relationships of social inequality were reproduced through the education system. ‘Habitus’ is similar to Husserl’s concept of ‘lifeworld’, describing the dispositions or forms of subjectivity connected with a person’s material, corporeal and symbolic attributes. Here, Bourdieu analyses the role of cultural capital in determining educational outcomes:


The term cultural capital refers to non-financial social assets; they may be educational or intellectual, which might promote social mobility beyond economic means.


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 Passerson 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. 

Theory makes distinction between material wealth and cultural assets of a particular class.

·        ASSETS:  Any possession that has value in an exchange.

·        WEALTH:  what you own {your iPods, your TV, the part of your house and car that are paid off, savings like stocks and bonds, vacation homes, your yachts, vacation homes}.  Total assets minus total liabilities. 


Relation to other Types of Capital -:

Economic Capital --

Command over economic resources (cash, assets).


Social Capital --

Resources based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence and support. Bourdieu defines social capital as "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."


Cultural Capital --

Forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society. Parents provide their children with cultural capital by transmitting the attitudes and knowledge needed to succeed in the current educational system.


Types of Cultural Capital -:


Cultural capital consists of both the consciously acquired and the passively "inherited" properties of one's self (with "inheritance]" here used not in the genetic sense but in the sense of receipt over time, usually from the family through socialization, of culture and traditions). Cultural capital is not transmissible instantaneously like a gift or bequest; rather, it is acquired over time as it impresses itself upon one's habitus (character and way of thinking), which in turn becomes more attentive to or primed to receive similar influences. Most of the properties of cultural capital can be deduced from the fact that, in its fundamental state, it is linked to the body and presupposes embodiment. This embodied capital, external wealth converted into an integral part of the person, into a habitus, cannot be transmitted instantaneously (unlike money, property rights, or even titles of nobility) by gift or bequest, purchase or exchange. It follows that the use or exploitation of cultural capital presents particular problems for the holders of economic or political capital, whether they be private patrons or, at the other extreme, entrepreneurs employing executives endowed with a specific cultural competence (not to mention the new state patrons). 


Cultural capital can be acquired, to a varying extent, depending on the period, the society, and the social class, in the absence of any deliberate inculcation, and therefore quite unconsciously. It always remains marked by its earliest conditions of acquisition which, through the more or less visible marks they leave (such as the pronunciations characteristic of a class or region), help to determine its distinctive value.


Furthermore, the specifically symbolic logic of distinction additionally secures material and symbolic profits for the possessors of a large cultural capital: any given cultural competence (e.g., being able to read in a world of illiterates) derives a scarcity value from its position in the distribution of cultural capital and yields profits of distinction for its owner.


THE OBJECTIFIED STATE                               

Cultural capital consists of physical objects that are owned, such as scientific instruments or works of art. These cultural goods can be transmitted both for economic profit (as by buying and selling them with regard only to others' willingness to pay) and for the purpose of "symbolically" conveying the cultural capital whose acquisition they facilitate. However, while one can possess objectified cultural capital by owning a painting, one can "consume" the painting (understand its cultural meaning) only if one has the proper foundation of conceptually and/or historically prior cultural capital, whose transmission does not accompany the sale of the painting (except coincidentally and through independent causation, such as when a vendor or broker chooses to explain the painting's significance to the prospective buyer). Cultural capital, in the objectified state, has a number of properties which are defined only in the relationship with cultural capital in its embodied form. The cultural capital objectified in material objects and media, such as writings, paintings, monuments, instruments, etc., is transmissible in its materiality. Thus cultural goods can be appropriated both materially – which presupposes economic capital – and symbolically – which presupposes cultural capital. Cultural capital in its objectified state presents itself with all the appearances of an autonomous, coherent universe which, although the product of historical action, has its own laws, transcending individual wills, and which, as the example of language well illustrates, therefore remains irreducible to that which each agent, or even the aggregate of the agents, can appropriate (i.e., to the cultural capital embodied in each agent or even in the aggregate of the agents).


However, it should not be forgotten that it exists as symbolically and materially active, effective capital only insofar as it is appropriated by agents and implemented and invested as a weapon and a stake in the struggles which go on in the fields of cultural production (the artistic field, the scientific field, etc.) and, beyond them, in the field of the social classes – struggles in which the agents wield strengths and obtain profits proportionate to their mastery of this objectified capital, and therefore to the extent of their embodied capital.



Cultural capital consists of institutional recognition, most often in the form of academic credentials or qualifications, of the cultural capital held by an individual. This concept plays its most prominent role in the labour market, in which it allows a wide array of cultural capital to be expressed in a single qualitative and quantitative measurement (and compared against others' cultural capital similarly measured). The institutional recognition process thereby eases the conversion of cultural capital to economic capital by serving as a heuristic that sellers can use to describe their capital and buyers can use to describe their needs for that capital.


By conferring institutional recognition on the cultural capital possessed by any given agent, the academic qualification also makes it possible to compare qualification holders and even to exchange them (by substituting one for another in succession). Furthermore, it makes it possible to establish conversion rates between cultural capital and economic capital by guaranteeing the monetary value of a given academic capital. This product of the conversion of economic capital into cultural capital establishes the value, in terms of cultural capital, of the holder of a given qualification relative to other qualification holders and, by the same token, the monetary value for which it can be exchanged on the labor market (academic investment has no meaning unless a minimum degree of reversibility of the conversion it implies is objectively guaranteed). 


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. Those researchers and theorists who explore or employ Bourdieu’s theory use it in a similar way as it was articulated by Bourdieu.


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.


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. 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. 


On the other hand, two authors have introduced new variables into Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. Emmison & Frow’s (1998) work centres 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.



‘Social capital’ theory can be sourced to the works of three main authors – James Coleman, Robert Putnam and Pierre Bourdieu.   


For Coleman, social capital exists in the structure of relations between individuals and is thus largely intangible.  Its potency, however, is realised in its capacity (just like physical and human capital) to facilitate productive activity.  This is achieved through the formation of social relationships built up over time which enables individuals to achieve their interests over-and-above those that can only be attained independently.  Four important forms of social capital are identified: a) obligations and expectations (e.g. doing favours for and receiving favours from other people), b) informational potential (e.g. sharing useful information that may inform some future action), c) norms and effective sanctions (e.g. the establishment of community values and shared standards of behaviour) and d) authority relations (e.g. skilful leadership that informs others’ actions). 


Putnam’s (1993, 1995) theory of social capital has functionalist roots also (especially its focus on social integration), but it is furthermore influenced by notions of pluralism and communitarianism.  His central thesis is that a well functioning regional  economy  together with a high level of political integration are the result of that region’s capacity to successfully amass social capital. ).  Social capital here has three components: a) moral obligations and norms, b) social values (particularly trust) and c) social networks (especially the membership of voluntary associations).  These forms of social capital are central to the promotion of civil communities and civil society in general. 




Bourdieu on social capital

·        ‘Social capital is the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’.

·        Social capital… provides each of its [the group’s] members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital, a “credential” which entitles them to credit…’


Bourdieu’s main distinction is his belief that social capital operates as a tool of cultural reproduction in explaining unequal educational achievement.  This theory has strong socio-cultural roots which locate the educational experiences of individuals dialectically through their social and material history. Specifically, as a conceptual treatise, Bourdieu’s theory proffers socio-cultural explanations for why under-represented groups remain excluded from the educational process.  It achieves this by expanding upon an analysis of cultural barriers to participation and relating subsequent investigations to actors’ own lived experiences. Three key theoretical concepts need to be explained in relation to Bourdieu’s perspective on social capital:

·        Habitus

·        Capitals

·        Fields    


Firstly, the concept of habitus is used to explain how objective structures and subjective perceptions impact upon human action. In Bourdieu’s own words, habitus constitutes “a set of durable, transposable dispositions” which regulates mental activity to the point where individuals are often unconsciously aware of their influence.  In essence, the habitus concept is a way of explaining how social and cultural messages (both actual and symbolic) shape individuals’ thoughts and actions.  It is not a static concept since it allows for individuals to mediate these messages, even to the point of resisting embodied beliefs.  To illustrate the importance of this concept, one might think of how certain social groups are more capable of mobilising their own deeply held beliefs on the value of education.  Often such values are shaped by a general set of outlooks in their immediate environment (e.g. parental/peer expectations, social position) that afford them some advantage in utilising the formal education system. 


The second important theme in illuminating Bourdieu’s theory is that of capitals.   This concept is subdivided into: economic, social, cultural, and symbolic categories.  

Economic capital refers to income and other financial resources and assets.  Its potency in the educational field, for example, is manifest in the capacity of  some individuals to purchase different types of educational services (e.g. private education, additional grinds/tuitions, distance learning courses) and associated resources (e.g. childcare, transport, books, ICT equipment etc.).  Economic capital on its own, however, is not sufficient to buy ‘status’ or position – rather, it relies on the interaction with other forms of capital. 


One other such form is social capital.  This exists as a set of lasting social relations, networks and contacts.  In educational terms, one may think of significant ‘others’ in one’s life that are in a position to enable material (and/or symbolic) access to new areas of expertise, resources and support.  The objectified form is manifest in such items as books, qualifications, computers; the embodied form is connected to the educated character of individuals, such as accent and learning  dispositions; and the institutionalised form represents the places of learning one may attend (e.g. different types of schools, colleges, universities, or technology institutions). 


Symbolic capital then is used by Bourdieu to explain the ways in which capitals are perceived in the social structure e.g. the status value attached to certain books, values, and/or places of learning.  In relation to capitals, it should be noted that all forms (economic, social, cultural, and symbolic categories) are the key factors that define positions and possibilities for individuals engaged in any field (in our case, education).  Moreover, a ‘multiplier effect’ frequently emerges in relation to any form of capital accumulation i.e. one capital often exchanges for another. 

The third and final theme dealt with here is that of fields.  In Bourdieuian language this concept relates to a structured space of forces and struggles, consisting of an ordered system and an identifiable network of relationships that impact upon the habitus of individuals.  Education is thus regarded as a field since it sets its own rules that regulate behaviour within Bourdieu claims that as certain individuals enter the field, they (consciously or otherwise) are more aware of the rules of the game and have greater capacity to manipulate these rules through their established capital appropriation.  Those individuals with prior qualifications or strong occupational and social status are among those who may be categorised in this manner.  Strategies (actual and/or symbolic in form) are thus employed by individuals to distinguish themselves from other groups and place them in advantageous positions via the effective utilisation and exploitation of capital (Rudd, 2003).  Such strategies can only become meaningful if they exhibit symbolic relevance i.e. if others, as well as the actors themselves, consider such strategies to be of significant value.


Fields are relatively autonomous from the wider social structure (or space, in his terminology), in which people relate and struggle through a complex of connected social relations (both direct and indirect). Among the main fields in modern societies, Bourdieu cited the arts, education, politics, law and economy. 



Cultural Capital is a very general theory, in the sense that it attempts to construct explanations for things like differential educational achievement in a way that combines a wide range of differing influences. In this respect, almost any cultural feature of people's lives can, under the right circumstances, be applied to an explanation of achievement / underachievement. This, in some respects, is both strength and a weakness of the theory. A strength in terms of the way the theory recognises that a multi-causal approach to understanding the complexity of achievement is required and a weakness in terms of the fact that it's frequently difficult to pin-down the relative influence of particular cultural factors. When sifting through the evidence, therefore, we are faced with a whole range of studies that can be classified, for our theoretical convenience if nothing else, into three main categories:


Firstly, the general nature of the theory makes it possible to include studies that, while not explicitly talking about the influence of cultural capital, implicitly support the "culture-based" approach to understanding achievement. Evidence in this section comes, therefore, from a wide diversity of sources. For example:


Paul Willis ("Learning to Labour") draws heavily (if not explicitly) on the concept of cultural capital when he uses the idea of working-class cultural histories, experiences, customs and traditions to explain "Why working-class kids get working-class jobs".


Secondly, we can note the general contribution made by writers such as Bourdieu to the theoretical development of the concept. We could, therefore, note a number of general points in this particular context. For example, we can note that the theory brings into focus the question of cultural values as they relate to things like:


What constitutes "knowledge".

How knowledge is to be achieved.

How knowledge is validated and so forth.


Thirdly, there have been a number of attempts to apply the concept of cultural capital explicitly (and empirically) to an understanding of differential educational achievement.

Diane Reay, for example, has noted the significance of family life / background as a "primary site of social reproduction". She argues that, in class terms, there's little evidence to suggest that different social classes view the importance of education differently. On the contrary, she argues, educational success tends to be seen by all classes as one of the keys to social mobility and success. Reay uses the concept of "emotional labour" to describe what she sees as the crucial role played by mothers in the educational life chances of their children. Reay argues that middle class mothers, for example, are "better-placed" (that is, they have greater reserves of cultural capital) than their working class peers to provide the support required by children throughout their school career. 


Social capital is a complex phenomenon.  Unlike its common representation as a linear model where ‘more social capital equals more [adult] learning’, Field (1999) reminds that social capital can also inhibit participation in learning.  Referring specifically to Northern Ireland, he stresses that communality can actually appear more supportive and rewarding than ‘going it alone’ in a formal institution. We need to avoid a simple definition of social capital that is aimed at promoting certain characteristics attributed to the ‘educated individual’ or ‘learning community’.   This is because social capital is not something that can be simply translated from one group (usually those with appropriate capital levels) to another. 

From a Bourdieuian perspective, an educational qualification is in itself a form of cultural capital that is used (consciously or otherwise) as a means of vertical stratification. There is still a general assumption, for example, that lower-class parents should simply act more like white middle-class parents for the benefit of their children.  Alexander and Entwisle are critical of this position since it belies the complexity of the factors that contribute to parenting children in disadvantaged circumstances as well as differences in values and belief systems that reflect different socialising systems.


A recent project, for example, concluded that ‘children of interested parents do 25% better in examinations’ besides serious. Methodological and theoretical concerns, we may well ask how such research can proffer any great insight into the integrative causes of educational disadvantage.  Is it the case, for example, that working-class parents are less interested in their children’s education?  Such a belief, we claim, is both unreliable and dangerous. Moving beyond a rights-based agenda (i.e. an equality agenda premised solely on legislative frameworks), we contend that learning partnerships must strive to develop the will to work with (not just for) disadvantaged groups.  This proposal embraces a strong ideological position on ‘disadvantage’ and ‘social exclusion’.  Here, education is seen as more than the acquisition of qualifications and social mobility.  Instead, education is viewed as a significant vehicle for cultural development aimed at developing legitimate democratic representation and critical perspectives on the status quo. 


The meritocratic ideology, so prevalent in Irish education, is fairly well internalised in the minds of providers and learners/non-learners alike.  Any developments towards a more inclusive education system will thus require significant changes in cultural values and attitudes.   Principally, then, education needs to be acknowledged as a field of social processes that produces loss of power, status, and self esteem.  Learning partnerships in turn must be prepared to act in the interests of others characterised as socio-culturally distant.  Crucially, this means a rejection of corrective strategies to ‘problems’ and a willingness to engage with new theoretical tools (e.g. Bourdieu) that help explain existing relationships and tensions therein.  Such insights remain central to any ambition for effective social inclusion.



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Received on 18.01.2012

Revised on   26.02.2012

Accepted on 28.03.2012

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