Understanding the Concept of 'Cultural Capital' With Examples

Rujuta Patil Jan 23, 2019
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The famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu talks about non-financial assets, such as education, intellect, language/dialect, or knowledge of classical art, music, dance, etc., forming cultural capital. Here is some help to understand this sociological concept with some examples.
Prestige, honor, or attention is seen as symbolic capital. For example, a war hero may gain symbolic capital as a political candidate.
Is the social status of a person more important than his or her economic status? No, not really! Practically speaking, after all it's money that matters the most! Or may be there is something that matters more? What is this 'something'?
A study trying to explain the differences in the performances of children, in France during the 1960s, suggested about this 'something'. Even today, kids in higher classes can easily relate to the environment in school, which is not different from the environment, for them, at home.
However, students from the lower classes face difficulties in adjusting with the atmosphere at school, as there are stark differences at times. This study in France was the source behind the coining of the term 'cultural capital', which was thereafter frequently used worldwide.

Definition of Cultural Capital

It is the non-monetary form of capital. This includes cultural assets that translate into a financial and social advantage for a person, similar to the advantages gained from economic resources.
Pierre Bourdieu is known to have formulated the term 'cultural capital'. Bourdieu and John-Claude Passeron first used the term in their work called 'Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction' (1973). The French term is le capital culturel. They used the term to justify a different theory, but the term, individually became popular.
As Bourdieu elaborates in his work 'The Forms of Capital' (1986), there are three kinds of capital.


This refers to purely financial assets, like cash.


This form of capital comprises all relationships, group memberships, networks of influence, and acquaintances, which act as resources for people.


A person's skills, knowledge, attitude, advantages, etc., mostly transmitted from parents form cultural capital. It helps an individual attain a higher social status.
Unlike economic resources that directly determine an individual's social and economic status, cultural capital can be seen as an implicit and indirect determinant. So, it represents those non-financial social assets that aid social mobility.
Bourdieu puts forth the idea of a society where different forms of capital is being exchanged. His concept of 'field' (a situational or social context) is thus based on this idea of society.
» A commoner may not be comfortable going for dinner at an expensive restaurant, unlike the elite, who are very well-versed with the nuances, mannerisms, and behavior expected at such places.
» Even subtleties like choice of books, a painting, unique cutlery (and the knowledge of using it), having an opinion on a political situation, playing an instrument, or having titles, etc., can be a few examples depicting cultural capital, which are mostly associated with the lifestyle of the elite.

Cultural Capital and Habitus

Another key concept from Bourdieu is that of 'habitus'. This denotes the system of socially established tendencies or temperaments that we acquire at an early stage in life. These dispositions shape our orientation to the world around us. So, when cultural capital, in the embodied form, is transmitted, it greatly contributes to the formation of habitus.

Types and Examples of Cultural Capital

Pierre Bourdieu categorized cultural capital in three distinct types, based on the nature of the cultural asset. Examples of these are as follows.


The capital inherited or acquired, not genetically, but mainly through the process of 'socialization' falls under this type. This includes cultural aspects like norms and traditions learned as a member of a family. Influence and consciously or willingly acquired tastes over a long period of time shape an individual's preferences.
Language or Dialect: Our speech style itself speaks a lot about us. People tend to recognize or distinguish among individuals depending on the dialects they speak. Grammar, accent, or even writing style (spellings) matter in the context of social mobility (example, getting a higher paid job).
Knowledge of mannerisms, classical music, dance, works of art like paintings, architecture, wines, and cuisine are typical examples of embodied cultural capital. Aesthetic preferences are considered to be taught to the younger ones by their parents.


Owning physical objects which are precious or have a very unique cultural value, characterize the objectified type of capital.
Symbols: Buying and collecting unique or antique works of art, masterpieces, paintings, or such cultural goods act as symbols of cultural capital. Knowing about the pricing of old paintings and art works is probably also more important. This would merge the two types - embodied and objectified cultural capital.


This refers to the institutional recognition of the cultural capital held by a person. Academic credentials and qualifications serve as a measure of comparing individuals in the labor market, for example.
Education: Possessing a degree certifies an individual to be a highly deserving candidate for an interview.
Intellect: A very crucial and foundational attribute of the human mind is his intellect. This cannot be categorized into any one type of social capital. It relates to and encompasses all the three types. The ability to think rationally or the knowledge of various facets of life build our intellect. It is understood to be free from common biases.
Besides, as an example of cultural capital, our intellect would probably be the most beneficial capital that helps us earn our economic and social capital.
Many researchers have utilized and further developed Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital, especially in relation to the education system. A criticism against the concept relating to social inequalities was discussed, but it took a backseat later on.
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