Cultural Capital

Paul DiMaggio. Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005.

The late Pierre Bourdieu, one of the leading French social thinkers of the twentieth century, developed the concept of “cultural capital” to explain the ability of elite managers and professionals to transmit their privileged status to their children, a process he referred to as “social and cultural reproduction.” By “social and cultural reproduction,” Bourdieu referred not only to the intergenerational reproduction of family status but also to the reproduction, first, of larger systems of social inequality and, second, of systems of cultural hierarchy (for example, the prestige of high-culture genres such as ballet and classical music compared with chorus lines and hip-hop).

Bourdieu was an abstract thinker with a gift for concrete social analysis. Like his other concepts, cultural capital has both a general definition and specific referents. Most abstractly, cultural capital comprises familiarity with and easy use of cultural forms institutionalized at the apex of a society’s cultural hierarchy (for example, orthodox religious doctrines in a theocracy). In his work on contemporary France, Bourdieu used “cultural capital” to refer to familiarity with prestigious aesthetic culture, such as the high arts, literary culture, and linguistic ability. Such “high culture” is often produced by artists who eschew commercial values and claim to pursue art for art’s sake. In many countries, it is distributed by nonprofit or public institutions. And its status is ensured by substantial public and private investment in school and university curricula that celebrate it, as well as high-culture programming in libraries and broadcast media and, in many countries, direct government support for high-culture artists and cultural institutions. Consequently, compared with other forms of prestigious knowledge, familiarity with the arts (or an understanding that such familiarity is a sign of distinction) tends to be nearly universal, cross-cutting boundaries of region, gender, or profession. The precise content of cultural capital, however, differs from society to society (e.g., in Japan, cultural capital includes knowledge of Noh Theatre and tea ceremonies).

Bourdieu asked how high-status people with relatively little personal wealth, for example, managers of publicly held corporations or professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and university professors, are able to pass down their privileged positions to their children. Before the rise of the manager-control firm, transmission of privilege was easy: The owner of a business simply bequeathed it to his (very rarely her) children. Once businesses passed into the hands of shareholders, direct transmission was no longer practical. Instead, Bourdieu argued, families transform their economic capital into “cultural capital” by exposing children to prestigious culture from early childhood on, through household conversations, lessons, and visits to museums and performing-arts events. Thus trained, children possess what Bourdieu called “embodied cultural capital”: cultural capital built into their ways of seeing and their schemes of evaluation, which they carry with them wherever they go. (Bourdieu also wrote of “linguistic capital,” the ability to speak with confidence, correctness, and grace, which may be regarded as a form of cultural capital.)

When children from privileged backgrounds go to school, their teachers mistake this embodied cultural capital for intelligence or giftedness. Thus, they convert their cultural capital into good grades, encouragement, and admission into competitive academic programs. Success in school facilitates success in later life, especially with completion of university training, at which point embodied capital is supplemented by the credentialed cultural capital of degrees and diplomas. (Bourdieu also wrote of “objectified cultural capital,” or books, paintings, musical scores, and other physical objects that one needs embodied cultural capital to appreciate, but this plays a less important role in his theory.) After completing schooling, children from high-status families “reconvert” their cultural capital back into economic privilege, completing the circuit of reproduction. Cultural capital remains useful after school, however, enabling its possessors to establish comfortable relations with potential patrons, employers, or marital partners.

In advanced capitalist societies, Bourdieu argued, cultural capital is most important for those members of the “dominant class” (owners of capital, high-level managers, and credentialed professionals) with the least economic capital. Scions of the wealthiest families, he argued, can afford to be casual in their approach to schooling and culture. By contrast, lower-income professionals (educators or librarians, for example) rely almost exclusively on their ability to transmit cultural capital (and with it, school success and an agreeable personal style) in order to ensure their children’s success. Bourdieu thus portrayed the “dominant class” as an inverted pyramid: Those with the most economic capital have the least cultural capital, and vice versa. Corresponding to differences in the volume and composition of capital are differences in values, lifestyles, and tastes: Artists and intellectuals, for example, distinguish themselves from corporate managers by valuing avant-garde art too complex or radical for the latter to understand, and embracing a simplicity of dress and décor consistent with their limited financial resources.

Theoretical Origins

Although Bourdieu coined the term “cultural capital,” the notion that culture may represent a source of status or power is rooted in classical social theory, particularly in the work of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. Weber wrote extensively about what he called “status groups”: persons connected by a shared status culture (that is, by a common identity, shared values, similar aesthetic tastes, forms of dress or speech, typical pastimes, and collective rituals) that they regard as a source of honor. (Weber’s observation that almost any criterion of distinction, no matter how trivial, can serve as a basis for status group formation is echoed in Bourdieu’s early use of the term “cultural arbitrary” to characterize cultural capital.) Weber also provided a classic account of the Chinese literati that foreshadows Bourdieu’s description of the modern professional who invests intensely in cultural capital as a basis for claims to elite status. Central to Weber’s theory was the insight that status groups use culture as a means of maintaining strong boundaries against outsiders in their efforts to monopolize scarce resources and market opportunities.

From Émile Durkheim, Bourdieu derived the notion that prestigious culture had a sacred quality: that it holds itself apart from the everyday world, that cultural symbols embody the power of the group in a physically compelling way, and that command of a group’s most esteemed cultural icons represents a source of power. These ideas are most commonly associated with Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. But Durkheim explicitly linked curricular change and social power in his posthumously published lectures on the history of higher education in France. Bourdieu was also influenced by Durkheim and Marcel Mauss’s Primitive Classification. Onto Durkheim’s observation that taxonomy is central to cultural systems, Bourdieu grafted his own emphasis on culture as a field of conflict, producing the concept of “classification struggle” that figures in his understanding of cultural change.

Bourdieu’s account of cultural capital was also influenced, though less deeply, by Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class was successfully published in French translation in the 1960s, and by the American economist Gary Becker, whose book Human Capital popularized within economics the general notion that nonmaterial resources contribute to social mobility. Although he acknowledged both as influences, Bourdieu’s understanding of culture was very different from that of Veblen or Becker.

What Cultural Capital Is Not

Cultural capital has entered into the sociological lexicon, but it is often used loosely and incorrectly to refer to any tastes, dispositions, or cultural knowledge that help people get ahead. Used properly, cultural capital refers only to those cultural resources that are, first, institutionalized and, second, broadly understood to be prestigious. For a cultural form to establish legitimacy at the level of the modern national society, its value must be guaranteed by institutions, such as universities, the state, or established churches.

It is also necessary to distinguish between Bourdieu’s ideas about cultural capital and Veblen’s notion of “pecuniary emulation”: competition for prestigious and expensive signs of distinction. First, for Bourdieu, the critical mechanism is the monopolization of cultural capital by status groups, not competition for status between individuals. Second, in arguing that prestigious cultural forms are perceived as sacred, Bourdieu emphasizes that cultural capital must be legitimate (that is, widely understood to be intrinsically valuable) and not merely fashionable. Third, it follows that whereas for Veblen, status competition generates an inflationary process in which prestigious cultural goods lose value as they trickle down the class hierarchy, for Bourdieu, the collective action of dominant status groups, backed by institutions and the state, can reproduce cultural hierarchies over long periods of time.

It is likewise important to distinguish between cultural capital and human capital, which includes any skills, information, and know-how that contribute to social mobility. Human capital operates in the marketplace and is directly productive. Cultural capital operates through informal social interaction and is only rarely economically productive. (Human capital and cultural capital overlap in occupations, such as finance, sales, or banking, that require incumbents to earn the trust of elite clients.) Put another way, human capital is a semipublic good: Increasing the human capital of individuals enhances the productive capacity of the entire society. (Indeed, economists invented the concept to explain why societies with high levels of formal education had substantially larger gross national products than one would predict based on their physical capital stocks alone.) By contrast, because status groups use it to appropriate economic rents, cultural capital may actually reduce economic productivity by interfering with the functioning of economic markets.

Culural capital, as sociologists use the term, should also be distinguished from two quite different uses by economists and urbanists. Cultural economists sometimes employ cultural capital to refer to a society’s stock of moral and aesthetic knowledge, or its “cultural heritage.” Urbanists have used the term (or its cognate, “creative capital”) to refer to the putative economic benefits of arts spending and creative industries for urban economies.

Finally, we should distinguish between cultural capital and social capital. For Bourdieu, the distinction was quite clear: “Social capital” refers to social connections that provide access to jobs and other resources. More recently, however, social capital has been used by authors like James Coleman and Robert Putnam to refer to those features of a social group (including such “cultural” features as trust and normative consensus) that facilitate collective action to produce public goods. Culture in this sense should not be confused with the kinds of prestigious status cultures from which cultural capital flows.

Empirical Research on Cultural Capital

Although Bourdieu documented differences in tastes and cultural styles among different French “class fractions” (his term for social groups defined largely on the basis of occupation and educational attainment), he opposed the kind of causal modeling that dominates the study of social inequality in much of the world. It was not long, however, before students of social stratification began to test hypotheses derived from his theory with individual level data on family background, cultural tastes and practices, educational attainment, occupational achievement, and other outcomes.

Most of this research has operationalized cultural capital using measures of survey respondents’ participation in high-culture arts audiences. Studies in the United States, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Latin America have documented strong associations between socioeconomic status and cultural capital, as well as significant effects on cultural capital of family of origin. Consistent with Bourdieu’s perspective, as opposed to Veblen’s, the strongest predictor by far is education, with family income playing a minor role. Also consistent with Bourdieu’s approach, and contradicting cognitive explanations of the association between education and taste for the arts, tastes cluster more by prestige (e.g., people who like classical music also like fine art) than by formal similarities (e.g., liking all kinds of music); and attendance at and attitudes toward high-culture arts events are better predictors of school success than are measures of what students know about the arts.

Research also provides much evidence to support the view that cultural capital is a significant predictor of school achievement and educational attainment, as well as some evidence that cultural capital is related to occupational attainment and to the educational level of one’s spouse. Ironically, the ubiquity of such findings poses a challenge to the underlying theory. For if cultural capital were only a means for the well-off to reproduce their status, it would simply mediate the effect of family background. Yet cultural capital independently affects outcomes, serving as a means of upward mobility as well as of social reproduction. If cultural capital is most important when direct inheritance of wealth and position is least practical, its effects should be greatest in socialist societies: Yet studies undertaken during or just after the socialist era in Eastern Europe show effects similar to those found in the West. Similarly, many observers argue that Americans are less familiar with and care less about “high culture” than Europeans, yet the results of empirical studies in Europe and the United States are not markedly different. Moreover, in many studies, gender, a factor that Bourdieu leaves out of his theory, explains as much or more of the variance in cultural capital as does socioeconomic background, with women reading more literature, attending more plays, and visiting more museums than their male peers. These results suggest that internal family processes related to the gender division of household labor play an important and neglected role in cultural reproduction.

In other words, the links between family socioeconomic status, cultural capital, and educational and other outcomes are well established, but the processes that produce these links are poorly understood. Based on existing research, it is still uncertain to what extent cultural capital (1) enhances life chances by enabling its possessors to impress high-status gatekeepers and move easily into elite social circles; (2) serves as an indicator of the “social intelligence” necessary to identify and assimilate prestigious tastes, styles, and knowledge more generally; or (3) represents a proxy for unmeasured factors such as work habits or motivation.

The Future of Cultural Capital

Although Bourdieu emphasized the stability of cultural capital over processes of transformation, he certainly recognized the possibility of change. It is convenient to use the term cultural capital regime to refer to the nature of cultural hierarchy in a given society at a given time. The cultural capital regime includes the content of prestigious culture, the nature and effectiveness of the institutional arrangements that sustain cultural capital’s legitimacy, and the role of cultural capital in processes of social reproduction and individual mobility. Cultural capital regimes may be more or less open with respect to the breadth of cultural contents and competencies included in cultural capital, more or less stratified in the value accorded to different cultural forms, and more or less consequential for the outcomes of stratification processes.

Cultural capital regimes may change as a result of classification struggles. Classification struggles entail collective action by subordinate groups to improve their social position and, in so doing, to elevate the prestige and legitimacy of cultural forms associated with their identity groups. In the United States, the recognition of jazz as a legitimate art form and its embrace by universities, nonprofit institutions, and government arts programs was the outcome of successful classification struggles (by artists themselves and as an indirect effect of the civil rights struggle of African Americans).

Cultural capital regimes may also change as a result of deinstitutionalization. Classification struggles may modestly expand the stock of legitimate culture without altering other aspects of the cultural capital regime; but if enough of them occur simultaneously, they may undermine the legitimacy of the cultural hierarchy as a whole. Many observers have noted an erosion, in the United States at least, of the cultural hierarchy that privileges traditional European aesthetic forms over popular culture or forms with Asian or African origins. This, they contend, is a result both of classification struggles and of the vast expansion of commercial cultural industries and the segmentation of the cultural marketplace.

Although such claims are plausible, there is surprisingly little statistical evidence that the association between high-cultural tastes and social background has become weaker. But there is abundant evidence that socioeconomic status (and especially educational attainment) is positively related to enjoyment of many forms of popular, folk, or alternative culture, as well as to participation in high culture. According to Richard Peterson, the new cultural elites in the United States are “cultural omnivores,” whose trademark is appreciation of a wide range of cultural forms and an open disposition to the new. Following postmodern theory, cultural omniverousness can be seen as reflecting higher levels of occupational and geographic mobility, more fluid forms of identity, and industrial regimes of “flexible production” suited to fine-grained audience segmentation. Omniverousness also reflects the social networks of highly educated individuals, which tend to be larger and more diverse on many dimensions than those of less educated persons. As Bonnie Erickson has demonstrated, diversity of taste is associated with the size and diversity of one’s social networks.

We must not confuse omniverousness with promiscuity: Omnivores continue to eschew certain low-status activities and genres. Moreover, cultural capital inheres not simply in the culture one likes, but in how one appropriates it. Nonetheless, in this view, the cultural capital regime in the United States has become more inclusive; the institutional system guaranteeing the prestige of European high culture has become weaker; and the link between cultural capital (measured conventionally) and life course outcomes should diminish.

Cultural capital, of course, need not be limited to the arts. It is possible (though little, if any, research bears on this) that a deinstitutionalization of high culture has been accompanied by the constitution of new candidates for cultural capital, embraced by parts of the U.S. population but not yet institutionalized in the broader society. One leading candidate, perhaps dominant among employees of large and midsize firms, is business culture, prizing resourcefulness, independence, group skills, technophilia, and familiarity with business concepts and personalities. A second candidate, based on more explicit cultural struggle, is the religious culture of evangelical Christianity, with its emphasis on scriptural knowledge, distinctive linguistic conventions, and alternative schools, media, publishers, and record companies.


Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital is a flexible and powerful tool for understanding the relationship between culture, power, and inequality in contemporary societies. Western societies over the past two centuries have derived their most potent and universal forms of cultural capital from the arts, and most researchers have focused on understanding continuities in the role of cultural capital in the reproduction of social inequality. A broader view of cultural capital, equally consistent with Bourdieu’s approach, might focus more on institutional analysis and on social and cultural struggle and change. Ultimately, a thorough understanding of cultural capital requires attention both to stability and to change to micro-mechanisms and to macro-historical processes.