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Cultural capital is a concept which is based on the study of social behavior or society. This concept has significantly become popular after it was being articulated by Pierre Bourdieu. Initially this term was used by Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeronas "Social and Cultural Reproduction" (1977). In the era of 1960, this work was mainly carried out to highlight the differences in children's outcomes in France. It has been explained and presented in terms of other kinds of capital in The Forms of Capital (1986); and in terms of higher education, for instance, in The State Nobility (1996). 

Theory of cultural reproduction introduced by Bourdieu has great influence. Significant amount of both theoretical and empirical literature is available on this theory which shows his efforts and dedication towards his work. He was curious to know about the ways in which the society can be reproduced. He was also eager to know that how the dominant classes can remain on the top and sustain their position. This concept could not be described only using economics knowledge, but the knowledge of culture is necessary to justify their places in the society.


Bourdieu has given the concept of cultural capital. According to him, collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, mannerisms,posture, material belongings, clothing, credentials, etc. that one gains being a part of specific social class is referred as cultural capital. He also described about creating a sense of collective identity and group position by sharing identical forms of culture and values with others like same taste in movies or a degree from an Ivy School League. On the other hand, this cultural capital is also a cause of social inequalities and differences. Cultural capital exists in different forms in the society and does effect on the social mobility of people. The division among people is based on different values and aspects and one of its examples is wealth.


Bourdieu wrote the book in 1984 named as Distinction.This book explains the cultural differences between the middle class and upper class people. Further, this highlights those cultural signifiers which middle class people are looking to compare themselves with upper class people. It was analyzed by _ that this book not only supports strengthening those middle class pretentions but also demonstrates the ways in which the cultural knowledge was brought into play in addition to economics in dynamics of social class relations. Bourdieu further explained this as:


A general science of the economy of practices does not artificially limit economic practices. These economic practices require hard work to grasp cultural capital with its different forms. According to his observation, he classified these capitals in three different categories named as economic, cultural and social capital.

(Bourdieu, in Bourdieu &Wacquant, 1992: 118–9


He further explains the social capital as under:

Social capital is defined as combination of the resources, actual or virtual. This result in an individual or group by virtue of acquiring a long lasting chain of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and identification. (Bourdieu, in Bourdieu &Wacquant, 1992: 119)

According to Bourdieu, capital serves as a social relation within a system of exchange that is involved with the collected cultural knowledge that deliberates power and status, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods that are symbolic and material, without distinction, that represent themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation (cited in Harker, 1990:13)


Bourdieu mainly classified cultural capital in three forms and these are embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. Embodied classification is made based on possessing consciously and passively inherited properties of one’s self. This inherited means that some traditions, culture and values are taken from ancestors over time and is not used in the genetic sense. This cultural capital is acquired only with the passage of time and it cannot be transferred instantaneously. Linguistic capital is an example of embodied cultural capital. This shows the way of communication received from surrounding culture. This way of communication clearly reflects differences among people having different cultures and traditions.


Objectified is made based on the possession of physical objects such as scientific instruments or works of arts. This cultural capital is transmissible rapidly. This means that the cultural goods can be transmitted to get economic benefits as well as for showing cultural capital symbolically. One having luxury car or record collection lies in this category. Cultural goods can be sold out to earn profit and this makes the people strong in terms of wealth as well. For example, selling a painting will only give you the profit in terms of money until unless the proper culture is not transferred or represented through that painting. The vendor should describe the painting’s significance to the buyer in order to earn both economic and symbolic benefits.


Third classification is based on the credentials and qualifications such as degrees or titles. This represents the cultural competency and authority.  This concept plays a significant role in labor market where it expresses the cultural capital in a single qualitative and quantitative measurements. This concept in turn help in conversion of cultural capital into economic capital by providing the services. Sellers can tell about their capital and buyers can enquire about their needs related to that capital.

Relation to Bourdieu's other concepts[edit]

  • Bourdieu concept of cultural capital is connected to other concepts of fields and habitus. These concepts remain in the process of development throughout his work. A field is described as a combination of social relations (King, 2005:223). It also comprises of conflicts created when individuals or groups try to achieve valuable capital within that space. This makes cultural capital both legal or not at the same time, but this is field dependent. Because of this, it can be observed that the authenticity of a particular type of cultural capital is completely based on random choices. The power to arbitrarily determine what constitutes legitimate cultural capital within a specific field is taken from symbolic capital.

  • Another important concept of cultural capital is Habitus. This is because most of it is taken from an individual’s habitus. It is often demonstrated as the characteristics or nature of a family that exhibit themselvesin different ways in each individual. (Harker, 1990:10; Webb, 2002:37; Gorder, 1980:226). Further studies say that this does not depend only on the habitus of the family (Harker et al., 1990:11) but also on the class to which the individual belongs (King, 2005:222). It changes according to the change in individual’s position within a field (Harker, 1990:11).

Use of the concept in theory and research[edit]

Theorists and researchers from all over the world paid significant attention to the concept of cultural capital. Mostly, this concept is studied in relation to the education system, but this has been used or developed in other discourses occasionally. Bourdieu’s cultural capital concept has been studied and can be divided into a number of basic categories. First, the theory is deployed as a framework for further research or gone through in detail as a possible means of explanation. Second, are those who made some additions and modifications in Bourdieu’s theory and extend it further. Finally, there are those who completely disagree with the Bourdieu’s findings and either rejected his theory or suggest a theory as his theory’s replacement. Major research made by others with the Bourdieu’s work is interlinked to education, only a small portion apply his theory to other instances of inequality in society.

Traditional use of concept[edit]

Bourdieu’s theory was studied and explored by many researchers and theorists and they used his theory without making any alterations. These researchers and theorists usually apply his theory without expressing criticism. They also figured out that Bourdieu’s theory worked well in supporting of their arguments when they measure the cultural capital concept within the fields. These works to help portray the usefulness of Bourdieu’s concept proved useful in investigating inequality mainly in terms of education.

Emirbayer& Williams (2005) does not utilized Bourdieu’s work in a similar way as it is described. Emirbayer& Williams mainly worked on determining the power relations in the field of social services, in particular shelters for homeless. They focused on discussing two different fields that workin the same geographic location (the shelter) and the types of capital that are legal and valued in each. In particular, they worked on highlighting how homeless people can have staff-sanctioned or client-sanctioned capital (2005:92). Furthermore, they worked on showing both the sides at one time. They described how the people in the shelter are both desirable and undesirable and valued and disparaged at the same time and this depends on the field they operate in. this shows the worth of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital in examining imbalance in any social setting.

Expansion of concept[edit]

Significant Research has been made further on Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital. This research is made on further explaining and extending the concept of Bourdieu’s theory in a beneficial manner, instead of criticizing it. Instead of constructing a new theory, these authors worked on investigating the unarticulated aspects of Bourdieu’s theory. For example, Stanton-Salazar &Dornbusch (1995:121) investigated on modification of cultural capital in school into social capital or “instrumental relations”. This is carried out with institutional agents who can transmit valuable resources to the person which further increase success in the school. According to these authors, this is only the description of Bourdieu’s theory. In the same way, Dumais (2002) brought into the concept based on gender variations. This concept is introduced to measure the capability of cultural capital to increase educational achievement. The author aims to highlight interaction of gender and social class and the benefits they produce from cultural capital.

On contrary, alterations have been made by two authors into Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital named as Emmison&Frow’s (1998). They added two new variable in Bourdieu’s theory. One of the variable is information technology and they worked on its exploration ability. According to Bourdieu, 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 proved useful as this highlights the ways to expand and update Bourdieu’s concept. This can be done including cultural goods and practices which are progressively more important in determining achievement both in the school and without.



Traditionally, it is said that the tastes a consumer has, mostly known as “consumer preferences” are derived out of human intellect. But, Bourdieu, however, went against this approach of Kant who is one of the well-known economist, rather he argued that human tastes are basically evolved from the social habituates of the individuals. Not only this, but also that the consumer preferences work as social symbols for a particular class. It even transfer from one generation to another of same social class. Moreover, it also plays a role in differentiating one social class from another. And for these all above mentioned reasons, Bourdieu phrased human tastes as consumer preferences but as a “social weapon” which creates segregation amongst the social classes.More precisely speaking, it is the something that sorts classes into upper, middle and lower class. It also defines the legitimacy of one social class over the others. And, off course, there is a large scope of the word “taste”. It includes not only the preferences of food and clothing but also the preferences of entertainment even. From this interpretation of “taste” by Bourdieu, we can easily negate the notion that he only focused on the material products like food, clothing and other credentials, rather he also include other everyday choices that an individual makes daily.

Now going another step ahead, following the same concept regarding human tastes, we also conclude that tastes are basically effected by the cultural dynamics that a person possesses. Although, according to the Kant’s theory of consumer preferences,taste comes out of the innate human intellect or the instinctive desires. It drives the a man to get influenced by the cultural dynamics which suits his intellect or the wants for choosing both; the consumer and luxury products in right or the rational amount. It means that, first the humans’ own intellect and then the cultural dominance effects the human tastes. While, on the other hand, Bourdieu disagreed with this concept. And according to him, it is not the human psyche that set his preferences but the dominant class of the culture in which he is living. And that class actually set the culture standards. Where another dilemma is that the cultural dynamics are recognized by the upper class. It is because, the lower classes are made to follow them, because they taught to have some special knowledge to make the judgments and have their own preferences, which only the upper class possesses. How it is taught to the dominant class to make decision of preferences, on basis of their own comfort zone, on their class socialization and the legitimacy they accrue by auto didacticism. And according to Coleman, another thing that provokes dominant class to maintain their supremacy over the other classes is the false educational system.

We could not have any idea that how social classes were divided and segregated and how deep cultivated the class system is in this capitalistic society and also remained followed  by the individual, if we only focus on the notion that social class define by mare the resource of production owned by the classes. Nor we would be able to portray a clear picture about the question that how the systems of subordination are related to the class system and domination of one class over the other. While, according to Brint and Karabel, it is the possession of capital goods which are actually resources of production give one social class a bigger tittle than that of the class who has lesser possession of capital good.

Thus, it is Pierre Bourdieu who presented a detailed work one the topic that how the taste preferences of life-style and food, clothing and entertainment as well are evolved, not only from the individual’s own psyche but also from the rituals of the cultural in which he lives. And these rituals are transferred from the upper class to the lower class. This transfer also, somehow, in modern era of capitalism, increase the distance between the classes. It also helps people in self-realization and analyzing their role in the society regarding the political milieu and social dynamics. Another thing that evolves out of this all is the contest between the class fractions to grab their own position in the society.

According to Anderson, it is nothing that determines the cultural dynamics but the social origins. A child from upper class would know the importance of a rare painting and would also know the right place to hang that painting on. While, one the other hand, a child from lower class would not know about the painting’s importance, rather, he would know the importance of the World Cup he won. Similarly, professional of glimmer industry would know who is better Director of the film, while, a lay man is well aware of the actors and actresses only.

Although some pretenders claim that the educational system is enough to cope up with class system, but Bourdieu remained simply disagreed with that. According to him, it is required to restructure the educational system to remove the disparities in the social order and to provide the new graduates with some fascinating opportunities. Another issue is about the rising and declining class fractions. Some people, on their way to prosperity, continues to upgrade their stand red of living, while, others experiences a decline in the same. However, autodidact remains in supernatural race which he already has had lost.

According to Bourdieu, the role of Habitus is very important in the power play. Habitus are the notions that actually influence as individual how he thinks or behaves. And these are Habitus of a class that ask it to submit its will in front of other class. Thus, the latter class get power against the former class.

Concluding all of that, we can observe a clear contradiction in thoughts of Bourdieu. It is because, on the one hand, offers the concept of democracy, in which every individual of a society, despite of his social class, is equal in his social and political powers. While, on the other hand, he gave the concept of social fractions and explained the points of differences between social classes, regarding social and political power each class hold.


Wacquant, L. (2005) Habitus. International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology. J. Becket and Z. Milan. London, Routledge.

Douglas E. Allen and Paul F. Anderson (1994) ,"Consumption and Social Stratification: Bourdieu's Distinction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 70-74.

Anderson, Paul F. (1991), "The Hidden Injuries of Social Class: Implications for Consumer Research," paper presented at the Association for Consumer Research Conference, Chicago, IL.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991), Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste . Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge

Bourdieu, Pierre and Lonc Wacquant (1992), An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Brint, Steven and Jerome Karabel (1989), The Diverted Dream, New York: Oxford University Press.

Coleman, Richard P. (1983), "The Continuing Significance of Social Class to Marketing," Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (December), 265-280


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