Cultural Capital Essay

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According to Pierre Bourdieu, the theory of cultural capital refers to the socially inherited economic, political, and cultural resources that inform social life and situate groups apart from one another. Ideologies and material benefits related to power, privilege, and education are tied up in the possession of these assets, which are not equally distributed among all members of a society. This capital and its allocation are connected to social locations like race, class, and gender. Those most endowed with socially valued and high cultural resources like travel, art, and financial investments represent the most powerful societal classes; thus the cultural capital of the rich, in this definition, holds more value than the cultural capital of the poor.

Educators have been concerned with cultural capital because academic success is connected to it. Cultural capital, like economic capital, has value that can be exchanged for resources that scaffold educational achievement. Schools transmit knowledge in cultural codes that simultaneously afford advantages to some and disadvantages to others. Schools follow and perpetuate the dominant society’s cultural ideals and privilege traditional forms of cultural capital.

In the United States the dominant view of cultural capital as related to educational skills, intellect, and practice often highlights traditional measures of success like high standardized test scores, participation in study abroad programs, college preparatory courses, parental college education, and high grade-point averages. The relationship of these markers of academic success to social locations like race, class, and gender means that those not holding privilege in these locations are often described as having no cultural capital to exchange for academic success. Those who are underprepared for college due to attendance at underfunded K–12 schools or whose parents or guardians worked multiple jobs, leaving little time for trips to a museum or library, are less likely to be seen as academic achievers despite the capital they bring.

One of the dangers of Bourdieu’s focus on high culture as most socially valuable is that the cultural capital that groups other than the described privileged elite possess, share, and utilize often goes unnoticed and unrecognized. In schooling, this oversight leads to oppressive devaluation leaving some students largely excluded from the discourse of academic success. The cultural capital of nondominant groups can only be extrapolated by a move from the focus on high culture to one more inclusive. Research on cultural capital should include more social groups, not just elites, recognizing that all social groups have cultural assets that warrant scholarly attention.


  1. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Franklin, V. P., & Savage, C. J. (Eds.). (2004). Cultural capital and Black education: African American communities and the funding of Black schooling, 1865 to the present. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.
  3. Lareau, A. (1987). Social class differences in family-school relationships: The importance of cultural capital. Sociology of Education, 60(2), 73–85.
  4. Perry, T., Steele, C., & Hilliard, A. (2003). Young, gifted and Black: Promoting high achievement among African American students. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

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