'Cultural capital' is a term which was invented by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930- present) in the 1970s.

Put simply, cultural capital is the cultural inheritance gained from our family and other class members. Wealth, status and power are all affected by the way we are taught, or not taught, the dominant ideology from birth..

Hmm, confused? Perhaps an example will help:

Three people go into a shop in Sweden. One person is from Norway, the other from Australia, and the other from France. They all want to buy a loaf of bread (or a pair of shoes, or some condoms... whatever you want this merry group to be buying, basically).

  • The Norwegian can speak the language, and has no trouble getting the object.

  • The French person can speak a little bit of Swedish and gets what they want after a few moments of gesturing and basic interaction.

  • The Australian can't speak the language at all and sputters away, pointing at the object and getting louder and more distressed until the shop keeper catches on.
So in this analogy, the Norwegian is considered a representative of the upper class , the French person is middle class and the poor old Aussie is the working class guy.

The 'cultural capital' idea is that although all three people can speak their own language, some were better at communicating with a second group than others. Even though the Norwegian would have looked smarter and more together than the blabbering Australian or even the half-successful French guy, it was just a result of him being the only one with the cultural capital needed, the required knowledge of the dominant ideology.

The education system is often blamed for the continuance of the uneven class structure in our society. For all students to have an equal chance to succeed in the school environment the upper class must allow other classes to mobilise by stopping the current system which enables the dominant class to reproduce its power, wealth and status without question.

An example of cultural capital in the education system is a student who, when faced with a school exam, can't concentrate. She's doodling, looking out the window, talking and laughing- doing everything except her test. It's because she hasn't been taught the way to behave in this situation, whereas her upper-class peers are well trained in sitting still, keeping quiet and endeavouring to excel.

If the exam system was changed or she was taught good old fashioned upper class values (cultural capital) from birth she would have a better chance at coming first in the test. Either of these options, of course, would be damn near impossible.

More info and stuff at freespace.virgin.net/chris.livesey/tece1ef.htm

The entire history of the concept of cultural capital is not something I could write here, so instead I will tell one indicative story from my own experience, and then talk a little bit about how the theory of cultural capital can be used and misused.

Some years ago, I was in graduate school. More specifically, I was in a class called "Sociology of Education". It was an interesting class, because it included both the academic theory types, and a few people who were already employed as teachers who wanted further certification. One of my fellow students, a teacher and baseball coach from a suburban high school, was commenting on something we had read about class structure in America, and said that he knew plenty of people who had done well from poor backgrounds. This caused a minor and unproductive uproar in the classroom. Later on, when working in a small group with two students who were (like myself) community educators working with disadvantaged populations, they both (with predictable eye rolls) commented: "I can't believe someone would be going on with that boot strap stuff".

It is a bit unfortunate that all of us, in graduate school, at a time when we are supposed to look through ideas and examine them critically, we were dividing into camps based on easily understood narratives. Either background meant nothing, or background meant everything.

And is that attitude that muddies up the otherwise simple and productive concept of cultural capital.

Cultural capital is cultural because it is based on "soft skills", attitudes and implicit knowledge, rather than on objectively defined conditions. And is capital because it can be used to produce more assets (either tangible or intangible).

Cultural capital does not have to be looked down at in a hierarchal way. It could be argued that a person of higher socioeconomic status doesn't have more cultural capital than a person of lower socioeconomic status, but merely a different type. For example, the richer and more educated person may not have the ability to read a bus schedule. Of course, the cultural capital they lack may not interfere with their goals as much, but that doesn't mean that they somehow objectively have "more" or "better" cultural capital.

Cultural capital is everywhere, and effects everything we do. I am using cultural capital right now while writing this. I have cultural capital because I have a computer, because I know how to write, and how to use HTML. And I have cultural capital because I am sophisticated enough to know about this site, rather than trying to type out my theories as comments on a Yahoo! news article. I lack certain types of cultural capital, as well: despite years of education, I still am a bit unclear on the entire affect/effect thing.

We live in a complex world, and to do anything requires a myriad amount of skills, some of which can be taught easily, and some of which are the result of steady acculturation. To pretend that because someone has been taught a set of easily defined, tangible skills that they are on a level playing field with everyone else takes willful ignorance.

On the other hand, cultural capital isn't everything. Plenty of people do succeed, both financially and personally, even if they didn't have parents who could afford clarinet lessons. As stated above, cultural capital is not something that can be quantified in terms of "more" and "less", but rather is something that has quality: everyone has their own background, which teaches them certain skills and attitudes. Sometimes a background that at first seems disadvantageous gives skills and attitudes that are optimal for certain activities.

So without having to "pick sides", and to constrain ideas of cultural capital to an easy narrative, the idea of cultural capital becomes both very obvious, and very useful: that people's background gives them certain attitudes and implicit knowledge and skills that allow them to do other things with relative ease.

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