The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects. Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its “incorporated,” embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor. It is a vis insita, a force inscribed in objective or subjective structures, but it is also a lex insita, the principle underlying the immanent regularities of the social world. Parts of this passage read as if they could have come from Marx. Like Marx, Bourdieu suggests that capital is “accumulated labor,” and he looks to capital as a way to explain how inequality is produced (and reproduced) in society. However, unlike Marx, Bourdieu is arguing for an examination of capital that goes beyond its economic dimensions. Bourdieu is also making an important point about social structure. Bourdieu considered structure to be something that is created through everyday agency and not something that wholly determines it. In other words, capital provides the objective structure of society, but it is also subjectively practiced. It is what makes the games of society—not least, the economic game—something other than simple games of chance offering at every moment the possibility of a miracle.
Depending on the field in which it functions, and at the cost of the more or less expensive transformations which are the precondition for its efficacy in the field in question, capital can present itself in three fundamental guisesBourdieu presents three different types of capital that comprise the structure of society. (He later develops something called symbolic capital, which receives only cursory attention in a few footnotes here.) Economic capital simply refers to economic resources, such as cash and property. Social capital refers to the resources and advantages we get from the groups we belong to and the people we know. Though both of these forms of capital are important, Bourdieu is best known for his work on cultural capital. Cultural capital refers to more symbolic elements that signal our class position, such as our tastes, skills, mannerisms, and credentials. : as economic capital, which is immediately and directly convertible into money and may be institutionalized in the form of property rights; as cultural capital, which is convertible, on certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of educational qualifications; and as social capital, made up of social obligations (“connections”), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of a title of nobility.
Cultural capital can exist in three forms: in the embodied stateEmbodied capital refers to cultural capital that cannot be separated from the person who holds it. Put simply, it is a part of our very physical being. One example is language, which can confer certain advantages if it signals something about our class that is valued. For an interesting take on how cultural capital creates boundaries between social classes, check out this video by sociology professor Brian Donovan, in which he breaks down the famous museum scene from the 1979 Woody Allen movie, Manhattan. , i.e., in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified stateObjects can also be considered cultural capital if their consumption signals anything about your social class. The consumption of fine wines might be associated with particular class, for example, as can books in someone’s library. In this interesting article on Slate, the author uses Bourdieu to explain the consumption of music in the age of the iPod. , in the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines, etc.), which are the trace or realization of theories or critiques of these theories, problematics, etc.; and in the institutionalized stateInstitutionalized cultural capital takes the form of credentials that objectively indicate one’s class position. The classic example is the college degree, which signals to employers an individual’s more embodied cultural capital, such as their skills and tastes. Can you think of other examples? , a form of objectification which must be set apart because, as will be seen in the case of educational qualifications, it confers entirely original properties on the cultural capital which it is presumed to guarantee.
… The notion of cultural capital initially presented itself to me, in the course of research, as a theoretical hypothesis which made it possible to explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from the different social classes by relating academic successBourdieu is well known for his research on the French education system, in which he discovered that variation in educational attainment across social classes was due to the habits and dispositions kids inherited from their parents. In this clip from the 2001 documentary, Sociology is a Martial Art, Bourdieu explains to a radio DJ how this process of reproduction plays out. , i.e., the specific profits which children from the different classes and class fractions can obtain in the academic market, to the distribution of cultural capital between the classes and class fractions. This starting point implies a break with the presuppositions inherent both in the commonsense view, which sees academic success or failure as an effect of natural aptitudes, and in human capital theories.
The Embodied State. Most of the properties of cultural capital can be deduced from the fact that, in its fundamental state, it is linked to the body and presupposes embodimentThe embodiment of cultural capital is closely linked to the habitus. Habitus refers to an individual set of dispositions, skills, and habits that are built up over time through everyday experience. (See Bourdieu’s Profile page for more information.) A fantastic example of habitus can be found in jazz. In this interview, jazz legend Miles Davis is asked how he chooses musicians with whom he wants to play. And, as you can see, it is not just about their talents, but also about how they embody the very idea of jazz. . The accumulation of cultural capital in the embodied state, i.e., in the form of what is called culture, cultivation, Bildung, presupposes a process of em-bodiment, incorporation, which, insofar as it implies a labor of inculcation and assimilation, costs time, time which must be invested personally by the investor. Like the acquisition of a muscular physique or a suntan, it cannot be done at second hand (so that all effects of delegation are ruled out).
So it has to be posited simultaneously that economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their rootBourdieu ends the essay by outlining how economic capital can be converted into cultural and social capital. But, cultural and social capital have their strongest effects when they are not closely associated with their underlying economic capital. Cultural capital can also (and often does) increase economic capital. One example is the world of wine, where taste oftentimes has little to do with price or critical opinion. However, as this NPR interview illustrates, wine critics have a lot of cultural capital and can make or break a wine based on their highly valued opinions., in other words—but only in the last analysis—at the root of their effects.
…Thus the more the official transmission of capital is prevented or hindered, the more the effects of the clandestine circulation of capital in the form of cultural capital become determinant in the reproduction of the social structure. As an instrument of reproduction capable of disguising its own function, the scope of the educational system tends to increase, and together with this increase is the unification of the market in social qualifications which gives rights to occupy rare positions.Here Bourdieu makes the case for why the transmission of cultural capital is so important for social reproduction in the education system. If the transmission of economic capital from one generation to the next gets harder, such as through strict inheritance laws, then other strategies are required to maintain the social hierarchy. The transmission of cultural capital is one such strategy.