What is Cultural Capital? Do I Have It?

An Overview of the Concept

A smiling white man holds a cigar and croquet mallet on the lawn of a luxurious estate, demonstrating how cultural capital can be demonstrated.
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Cultural capital is a term developed and popularized by late-twentieth century French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu first used the term in written work with Jean-Claude Passeron in 1973 ("Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction), then further developed it as a theoretical concept and tool of analysis in his landmark study Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, published in 1979.

Cultural capital is the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors and skills that one can tap into to demonstrate one's cultural competence, and thus one's social status or standing in society. In their initial writing on the topic, Bourdieu and Passeron asserted that this accumulation was used to reinforce class differences, as historically and very much still today, different groups of people have access to differing sources and forms of knowledge, depending on other variables like race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and even age.

To understand the concept more fully, it is useful to break it down into three states, as Bourdieu did in his 1986 essay, "The Forms of Capital." Cultural capital exists in an embodied state, in the sense that the knowledge we acquire over time, through socialization and education, exists within us. The more we acquire certain forms of embodied cultural capital, like say knowledge of classical music or hip-hop, the more we are primed to seek and acquire more of it and things like it.

In terms of norms, mores, and skills--like table manners, language, and gendered behavior--we often act out and display embodied cultural capital as we move through the world, and we perform it as we interact with others.

Cultural capital also exists in an objectified state. This refers to the material objects we own that might relate to our educational pursuits (books and computers), jobs (tools and equipment), how we dress and accessorize ourselves, the durable goods we fill our houses with (furniture, appliances, decorative items), and even the food we purchase and prepare.

These objectified forms both signal to those around us what kind of and how much cultural capital we possess, and in turn, steward our continued acquisition of it. As such, they also tend to signal our economic class.

Finally, cultural capital exists in an institutionalized state. This refers to the ways in which cultural capital is measured, certified, and ranked. Academic qualifications and degrees are prime examples of this, as are job titles, religious titles, political offices, and taken-for-granted social roles like husband, wife, mother, and father.

Importantly, Bourdieu emphasized that cultural capital exists in a system of exchange with economic and social capital. Economic capital, of course, refers to money and wealth, while social capital refers to the collection of social relations one has at one's disposal (with peers, friends, family, teachers, fellow alumni, employers, colleagues, community members, etc.). The three can and often are exchanged for each other. For example, with economic capital, one can buy access to prestigious educational institutions that then reward one with valuable social capital, and socialize and educate one to possess elite forms of cultural capital.

In turn, both the social and cultural capital accumulated at an elite boarding school, college or university can be exchanged for economic capital, via social connections, knowledge, skills, values and behaviors that help one attain high-paying jobs. (To see clear evidence of these phenomena at work, see the landmark sociological study Preparing for Power by Cookson and Persell.) For this reason, Bourdieu observed in Distinction that cultural capital is used to facilitate and enforce social divisions, hierarchies, and ultimately, inequality.

Yet, it's important to acknowledge and value cultural capital that is not classified as elite. Ways of acquiring and displaying knowledge, and what kinds of cultural capital is considered important differ among social groups. Consider, for example, the important roles that oral history and spoken word play for many; how knowledge, norms, values, language, and behaviors differ across regions of the US and even across neighborhoods; and the "code of the street" that urban kids must learn and abide in order to survive in their environments.

In sum, we all have cultural capital, and deploy it on a daily basis to navigate the world around us. All forms of it are valid, but the hard truth is that they are not valued equally by society's institutions, and this begets real economic and political consequences.