Cultural Capital Essay

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The concept of cultural capital, which examines the interactions of culture with the economic class system, originated with French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron. Although conceived within the context of French culture, much of Bourdieu’s writing has been translated into English, resulting in the extensive use of his concept in sociological and educational research in the United States and elsewhere.

In “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” Bourdieu sought to understand why children from different social classes in the 1960s exhibited unequal scholastic achievement. He examined how children from the upper class profit in school settings from the activation and distribution of cultural knowledge their parents directly transmitted to them.

In a subsequent writing, “The Forms of Capital,” in 1983, Bourdieu discussed three interrelated and inextricably linked types of capital—economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Cultural capital similarly encompasses three forms: the embodied state, the objectified state, and the institutionalized state.

Embodied Capital

In its most fundamental form, cultural capital is “linked to the body,” partly unconscious and acquired early on in life. Individuals must often exert effort to incorporate it. In his description of embodied cultural capital, Bourdieu borrowed a related concept, “habitus.” Habitus can be understood as culturally learned performances that take the form of taken-for-granted bodily practices, ways of thinking, dispositions, or taste preferences. Embodied capital includes such things as manners, habits, physical skills, and styles that are so habitually enacted as to be virtually invisible. Embodied capital enacts values and tendencies socialized from one’s cultural history that literally become part of the individual. Knowledge itself, Bourdieu suggested, is actively constructed as habitus, influenced by individual cultural history, and available to be mobilized by experiences in everyday life.

Objectified Capital

Things or possessions owned or acquired by people are objectified capital, but the objectified form of cultural capital cannot be understood without acknowledging its relationship to embodied capital and habitus. This form of capital is not of the body but rather lies outside of the body. The concept is similar to the Marxist or economist concept of capital: things that can be used, exchanged, or invested and may provide an advantage in societal interactions. Individual persons are not the only possessors of objectified capital. Social institutions and social systems acquire objectified capital that affects their value and social status, for example, the built environment of schools and the social networks and connections of students, faculty, and alumni. Objectified capital operates to maximize benefits in a wide variety of social situations.

Institutionalized Capital

Institutionalized cultural capital manifests as academic qualifications that recognize and legitimate the embodied and objectified forms of cultural capital possessed by a person. Institutionally sanctioned capital implies what Bourdieu called “cultural competence.” Therefore, persons possessing academic qualifications can be compared and exchanged, and monetary value can be placed on their qualifications. Bourdieu asserted that the value of institutionalized cultural capital is determined only in relation to the labor market, where the exchange value of cultural capital is made explicit.

Cultural Capital and Societal Consequences

In all its forms cultural capital is an accumulation of resources that cannot be acquired as instantaneously as economic capital. Resources acquired over time can, theoretically, be mobilized and invested to gain an advantage in various fields. Fields, or social contexts, in Bourdieu’s use of the term, are complex and fluid institutions, customs, and social rules. Depending on the field in which one is operating, the value of the person’s cultural capital changes. The social issues where the concept of cultural capital is helpful include social class, education, inequality, power, and exclusion.

Cultural capital becomes mobilized and reproduced through primary and secondary socialization processes. For this reason childrearing practices and parental involvement in schools have been extensively investigated. Various forms of cultural capital, when activated through interaction with social institutions, may be valued unequally. For example, schools may not reward the embodied capital of working-class parents who practice rigid distinctions between work and play. Social institutions reward, ignore, or punish different types of cultural capital, thereby creating and perpetuating inequality.

Uses and Misuses of Cultural Capital

Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital is fluid and multidimensional, with various forms nested in such a way that they are inseparable within the individual; however, the concept also evolved over time in his writings. Moreover, as a “grand theory” in the sociological tradition of Karl Marx and Talcott Parsons, cultural capital has been critiqued for the overabundance of definitions and lack of empirical referents. Application and misuse of the concept of cultural capital has led to confusion and a lack of clarity as to what the term actually means.

The use of the concept of cultural capital, as intended by Bourdieu, is paramount to the explanation and description of one vein of influential factors relating to social problems and issues in the social sciences and in educational research, in particular. Cultural capital harnesses the intrapersonal as well as the extrapersonal knowledge and experiences that help shape a person’s interaction with others and with social institutions, such as the school. However, if defined too narrowly, as in the case of deeming valuable only the cultural capital of the upper class, maximal potential of the concept cannot be reached. Given the social diversity of U.S. society, what constitutes cultural capital should be examined in context and both inside and outside the boundaries of social class.

One major weakness with respect to the use of cultural capital in the exploration of social problems is that so many people misunderstand the concept and use it within a deficit paradigm to point out the failures of working-class parents to properly educate their children. Therefore, it is important for researchers and practitioners to identify both the positive and negative aspects of cultural capital from all types of social groups. This practice can give these aspects value, broaden the understanding of an individual’s interactions with social institutions, and give strength to the concept of cultural capital.

The versatility of the concept of cultural capital provides fertile ground for future research across disciplines and is especially useful in the fields of education and sociology. The notion of cultural capital is also connected to discussions of social, intellectual, and human capital. Future research that examines these connections will further develop the concept of cultural capital and its potential value for understanding current social issues.


  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” Pp. 487-511 in Power and Ideology in Education, edited by J. Karabel and A. H. Halsey. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 241-58 in Handbook for Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood.
  4. Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron. [1970] 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. Trans. Richard Nice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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