The term cultural capital was coined in the 1980s by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His theory of society was that it replicates itself around a number of factors:
- Habitus. This describes the knowledge, tastes and attitudes we develop from the environment in which we grow up, such as what we know, the clothes we wear, the way we speak and our likes and dislikes. Those who have a certain type of knowledge will tend to value others with similar knowledge when recruiting for specific roles.
- Fields. Fields are areas in which we display our habitus. For example, we may have grown up in a place where our habitus was to be ‘street smart’. If one works in a field where being street savvy is essential, our habitus will be helpful; if we were working in an art dealership, it would not. Habitus, therefore, has a different value depending on the field in which one finds oneself. Subjects are an example of fields. One could have a robust mathematical habitus which would serve one well in the subject of mathematics but would be of limited value in art.
- Cultural capital. This is the way society views individuals’ habitus. It is domain-specific in so much as ‘society’ is very diverse. Some may value a habitus that includes knowledge of rap and street art, whilst others may appreciate a habitus that provides knowledge of opera and classic portraiture.
Bourdieu’s theory was that inequalities in society reproduce themselves because of cultural capital: because the people in power have become successful because of their cultural capital, they go on to value individuals with a similar habitus to themselves; those in charge of education value the things that made them successful and create policies that they believe will help others to develop the habitus that made them successful.
Why is this important in education?
According to many (including OFSTED), high cultural capital is necessary because of the social inequalities in our country. Because our habitus is in part determined by our upbringing, some students will, because of their home life, develop high cultural capital that universities and employers value and will therefore be at an advantage over those who have a lower cultural capital.
By planning for cultural capital within the curriculum, schools can help those students who may otherwise not have high cultural capital and, in doing so, help reduce social inequalities.
Some argue that this makes the curriculum take on a more middle-class nature valuing, for example, classic literature (by mostly white males) over contemporary works from a diverse range of writers. Some even go as far as dismissing the notion of cultural capital as ‘posh knowledge’.
However, many agree that all students should be allowed the opportunity of social mobility afforded by high cultural capital. This is why it has recently become part of the way schools are judged.
There have been many misinterpretations of the term cultural capital. Most frequently, the term has been interpreted as the experiences our students have had in their lives, such as holidays abroad, museum visits or trips to the seaside. Whilst we are all the sum of our experiences, and whilst these things certainly affect one’s outlook on life, they are not quite the same as cultural capital.
To understand what cultural capital education is, the terms ‘habitus’ and ‘fields’ mentioned above become very important. One may have a habitus in English Literature that involves only the latest popular children’s writers or one that involves classic fiction over many years. The latter is more valued by universities and top employers because a similar habitus serves them well. One may ‘like’ the subject of art and have a habitus that reflects this, but one who has a habitus that includes knowledge of art history and the important movements, ideas and artworks will have a higher cultural capital.
Cultural capital should therefore be best seen as valuable subject-specific knowledge rather than life experiences; life experiences, such as visiting an art gallery, theatre or museum, are valuable but not the same as cultural capital.
Here is a quick table of examples of cultural capital versus excellent experiences but not cultural capital: