One of the central goals of sociological studies of education has been to understand the role of schools in society. Do schools promote equal opportunity? Do schools help to recreate social stratification? In American society, where the ideology of meritocracy has taken root, American social science researchers have been pre occupied with issues of mobility and status attainment. The concept of cultural capital offers an alternative to the classic view of schools as the ”great equalizer” which assesses students based on their raw talent or merit. Instead, the concept of cultural capital suggests that students’ performance in schools draws on students’ cultural resources where the habits, dispositions, and skills that children learn in the home are unequally valued by educators. For example, in this perspective children who learn classical music or other highly valued cultural practices at home may have an advantage in the educational setting compared to children who learn hip hop music or other cultural practices that are accorded lower social value. The profit yielded by cultural capital is linked to the value accorded to particular skills, dispositions, and habits by educators and other people in positions of power in dominant institutions. The concept of cultural capital plays a large role in arguments concerning social reproduction, in which schools are posited to play a key role in channeling individuals toward class destinations that reflect their class origins, and in legitimating inequality.
The concept of cultural capital grew out of the work of the French social thinker Pierre Bourdieu and his broader theory of social life. As Lamont and Lareau (1988) note, Bourdieu offers differing definitions at various points in his numerous writings. Bourdieu’s most influential discussions of cultural capital in education can be found in an early co-authored work (Bourdieu & Passeron 1977) and in an article (Bourdieu 1977). Bourdieu’s (1986) article offers the most direct discussion of the topic.
As with many core sociological concepts, the notion of cultural capital has been subject to a profusion of definitions in the literature. There has also been a profusion of indicators used to measure it. DiMaggio (1982), in a highly influential article, focused on students’ attitudes, activities, and information regarding art, music, and literature. The assumption made by DiMaggio (and those who have followed him) is that proficiency with highbrow aesthetic culture of this sort enables students to carry out ”status displays” which teachers, in turn, are inclined to reward. Lamont and Lareau (1988) defined cultural capital as ”institutionalized, i.e. widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods, and credentials) used for social and cultural exclusion.” In doing so, however, they argued that in order for a given set of attitudes or preferences to be declared ”cultural capital,” this institutionalization must first be empirically documented. This argument was widely ignored. Instead, in part as a result of the constraints of representative survey data, empirical research has largely followed the work of DiMaggio and settled for indicators of cultural capital that hinge on knowledge of or facility with ”highbrow” aesthetics (e.g., attendance at art museums, theater, or plays). While some studies have established a relationship between this type of ”high status cultural consumption” and educational experiences, others (De Graaf et al. 2000) have found that parents’ language use in the home, particularly in the form of reading, is more influential.
Some scholars, such as Kingston (2001), have declared the concept and the literature it has spawned to be of little or no value. Lareau and Weininger (2003), in a comprehensive review, criticize the English language literature for unnecessarily narrowing the concept by focusing on ”highbrow” aesthetic culture. They also object to the partitioning of effects attributable to cultural capital from those attributable to ”human capital” or ”technical ability.” They call for a broader conception of cultural capital which stresses the micro interactional strategies through which children and their parents gain advantages in schools. For educational research, they stress the value of Bourdieu’s definition of cultural capital as ”the educational norms of those social classes capable of imposing the … criteria of evaluation which are the most favor able to their children.” Although abstract, this definition implies the need to look critically at the standards which determine success in school and at the strategies that families pursue in relation to these standards. For example, child rearing practices that emphasize language development or parent involvement in schooling offer cultural capital to family members (Lareau 2000).
In sum, while pursuing different empirical approaches, researchers using the concept of cultural capital generally challenge the view of schools as adhering to objective and socially neutral standards of success. Instead, the concept of cultural capital stresses the ways in which the standards for success are drenched in family cultural practices. Advantaged families transmit an advantage to their children because educators proclaim the cultural practices in these families to be more valuable. From this vantage point, the role of schools in society -despite the well intentioned beliefs of educators – too often offers an advantage to children from the dominant class as they approach school with a set of powerful, albeit largely invisible, cultural advantages which they draw on to comply with standards for school success.
- Bernstein, B. (1970) Class, Codes, and Control, 1: Theoretical Studies Towards a Sociology of Lan guage. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
- Bourdieu, P. (1977) Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. In: Karabel, J. & Halsey, A. H. (Eds.), Power and Ideology in Education. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 487-511.
- Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital. In: Richardson, J. G. (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood Press, New York, pp. 241-58.
- Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J.-C. (1977 ) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. R. Nice. Sage, London.
- Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J.-C. (1979) The Inheritors: French Students and their Relations to Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- De Graaf, N. D., De Graaf, P. M., & Kraaykamp, G. (2000) Parental Cultural Capital and Educational Attainment in the Netherlands: A Refinement of the Cultural Capital Perspective. Sociology of Education 73: 92-111.
- DiMaggio, P. (1982) Cultural Capital and School Success: The Impact of Status Culture Participation on the Grades of US High School Students. American Sociological Review 47: 189-201.
- Kingston, P. (2001) The Unfulfilled Promise of Cultural Capital Theory. Sociology of Education (Extra Issue): 88-99.
- Lamont, M. & Lareau, A. (1988) Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments. Sociological Theory 6: 153-168.
- Lareau, A. (2000) Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education, 2nd edn. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
- Lareau, A. & Weininger, E. B. (2003) Cultural Capital in Educational Research: A Critical Assessment. Theory and Society 32: 576 606.