What Is Cultural Capital? Do I Have It?

An Overview of the Concept

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Cultural capital is the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that a person can tap into to demonstrate one's cultural competence and social status. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term in his 1973 paper the "Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction," coauthored by Jean-Claude Passeron. Bourdieu later developed that work into a theoretical concept and analytic tool in his 1979 book "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste."

In their early writing on the topic, Bourdieu and Passeron asserted that the accumulation of knowledge is used to reinforce class differences. That's because variables such as race, gender, nationality, and religion often determine who has access to different forms of knowledge. Social status also frames some forms of knowledge as more valuable than others.

Cultural Capital in an Embodied State

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In his 1986 essay, "The Forms of Capital," Bourdieu broke down the concept of cultural capital into three parts. First, he stated that it exists in an embodied state, meaning that the knowledge people acquire over time, through socialization and education, exists within them. The more they obtain certain forms of embodied cultural capital, say knowledge of classical music or hip-hop, the more they are primed to seek it out. As for norms, mores, and skills such as table manners, language, and gendered behavior, people often act out and display embodied cultural capital as they move through the world and interact with others.​

Cultural Capital in an Objectified State

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Cultural capital also exists in an objectified state. This refers to the material objects individuals own that might relate to their educational pursuits (books and computers), jobs (tools and equipment), clothing and accessories, the durable goods in their homes (furniture, appliances, decorative items), and even the food they purchase and prepare. These objectified forms of cultural capital tend to signal one's economic class.

Cultural Capital in an Institutionalized State

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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, political offices, and 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. Social capital refers to the collection of social relations an individual has at one's disposal with peers, friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, etc. But economic capital and social capital can be exchanged for each other.

With economic capital, a person can buy access to prestigious educational institutions that then reward one with valuable social capital. In turn, both the social and cultural capital accumulated at an elite boarding school or college can be exchanged for economic capital via social networks, skills, values, and behaviors that point one to high-paying jobs. For this reason, Bourdieu observed that cultural capital is used to facilitate and enforce social divisions, hierarchies, and ultimately, inequality.

This is why it's important to acknowledge and value cultural capital that's not classified as elite. Ways of acquiring and displaying knowledge vary among social groups. Consider the importance of oral history and spoken word in many cultures. Knowledge, norms, values, language, and behaviors differ across neighborhoods and regions of the US. In urban environments, for example, youth must learn and adhere to the "code of the street" to survive.

Everyone has cultural capital and deploys it on a daily basis to navigate society. All forms of it are valid, but the hard truth is that they are not valued equally by society's institutions. This begets real economic and political consequences that deepen social divides.