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Bourdieu's Theories on Capital

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2150 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Bourdieu was a French anthropologist, sociologist and philosopher. Much of his work centred around the idea of capital as well as its various forms and its presence within society. While he had studied the idea of a capital’s framework with great depth, he had focused greatly on the concepts of social and cultural capital. Therefore, this essay will attempt to analyse Bourdieu’s interpretations of different forms of capital, precisely his studies of social and cultural capital. The essay will initially explore the definitions of some of the different types of capital. It well then go onto offer a more in-depth analysis of the specific types of capital, by commenting on the characteristics and the importance of these types of capital within society.


Within his own work, Bourdieu had defined capital as “accumulated labour (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated… enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labour” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 241). Here Bourdieu refers to how whether it be the accumulation of physical financial capital, or the cultural capital, built up due to the accumulation of history, individuals are able to “hold structured positions according to how much capital they hold… not only in its objective forms but also in its symbolic forms” (Townley, et al, 2013, p. 1). One of Bourdieu’s points of focus, and therefore one of the central themes of this essay, is the concept of cultural capital. Sullivan (2001), interprets Bourdieu’s (1977) understanding of cultural capital as the knowledge attained by a group of individuals within a community. She then goes onto state that Bourdieu believed that the majority of such knowledge was possessed by educational institutions, meaning it would be possible for the wealth of such capital to vary amongst different social classes. Bourdieu also looks at social capital and its influence over society. This can be defined as “The actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of durable networks of relationships” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 248).

Cultural Capital:

The attainment of cultural capital can occur through multiple means. Cultural capital can be: embodied, objectified and institutionalised (Bourdieu, 1986). According to Bourdieu, all three states are interconnected through the fact that they are influenced by social class. Bourdieu believed for cultural capital, existing in an embodied state, to be the most significant as he claims, “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 embodiment” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 244). This state of cultural capital can either be cultivated i.e. learned by individuals or through the investment of their time. It can be also be unconsciously gained because of one’s upbringing, as individuals are influenced by their surroundings and the community in which they are brought up. One of the earliest forms of capital, in the embodied state, is that which is acquired through language. Studies suggest that those who already have existing knowledge of their language going into primary education tend to have higher levels of cultural capital (Lareau, 1987). Lareau develops Bourdieu’s findings by focusing on the participation of parents within their child’s education. She points out that those of a higher social class were more likely to be in more advantageous positions as they receive more support by those within their surroundings in order to help enhance their intellect from a young age (Lareau and Horvat, 1999).

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Cultural capital can also appear in an objectified state. This occurs when “cultural capital is objectified in material objects and media, such as writings, paintings, monuments, instruments, etc” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 246). Here Bourdieu refers to how objects can be utilised as a means of reflecting a certain culture. This form of capital is the most tangible out of the other states of cultural capital (Throsby, 1999), making it easier to recognise. The ownership of cultural capital, in an objectified state, can also be linked to determining social class. The materials owned by someone can be used as a means to elevate one’s social status as objects and materials are perceived to hold different values (Holt, 1998). Holt argues that this can lead to individuals to “compete for placement in the social hierarchy through acquisition” of capital (Holt, 1998, p. 4). In order to manifest their wealth of cultural capital, individuals may invest into objects which hold a certain level of prestige within society. The majority of cultural capital, available in an embodied state can therefore be converted into economic capital. Due to the fact that almost all materialistic, or tangible, capital hold a certain value, it allows for the “transmission of legal ownership” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 246).

Bourdieu’s final state of cultural capital is that which is institutionalised. Bourdieu expresses this to be capital “in the form of academic qualification” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 247). He argues that this state of cultural capital is gained once individuals utilise their intellect, in the form of embodied cultural capital and apply it by advancing through different tiers of education. This can then become a more objectified state in the form of “legally guaranteed qualifications” such as degrees offered to those who complete an academic course at university level (p. 248). The role of social class in determining one’s wealth of institutionalised cultural capital can also be analysed. Earlier in this essay, the topic of social class determining embodied cultural capital, such as one’s ability to interact with language at an early age, was discussed. This can be linked to institutionalised cultural capital as those who received more support to expand on their embodied cultural capital from infancy, are more likely to receive similar support as they advance through different levels of education. Such support can come in the form of extra tuition, which may not be feasible for those from working class backgrounds. In a study conducted by Bridge, he found that levels of institutionalised cultural capital tend to be higher in more gentrified areas as those from middle- and upper-class backgrounds are “able to reproduce institutional cultural capital through `good’ schooling for their children” (Bridge, 2006, p. 1967). Like cultural capital of an objectified state, institutionalised capital can also be converted into economic capital. The qualifications gained allow individuals access to certain labour markets due to the skills gained from the qualifications. This therefore results into the “accumulated labour” Bourdieu alludes to, which leads to these labourers gaining economic capital in return.

Social Capital:

Often those who share common aspects of cultural capital, such as the institutionalised cultural capital of belonging to the same university, tend to have a feeling of collective identity. This links in with the next aspect of this essay which focuses on Bourdieu’s view of social capital, as he believed that these networks would offer members of groups “collectively-owned capital” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 249). It has been argued that individuals often surround themselves with those who they believe will “contribute to one’s overall socioeconomic standing” (Coskuner-Balli and Thompson, 2013, p. 20). The pair also express the Bourdieuan view that the decision process in building such capital is down to how exchangeable capital is for another form of capital. What this suggests is that individuals are likely to build ties with those who they feel are beneficial to them. For example, an individual may decide to befriend someone who has access to large amounts economic capital, thus making the social capital exchangeable for the potential gain in economic capital.

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Like other forms of capital covered by Bourdieu, social class again plays a role in influencing the amount of social capital possessed by different individuals. Bourdieu had emphasised how one’s individual social capital is determined by the size of the networks or by the collected volume of capital, possessed by those who which the individual is connected to. This leads to the argument of societal disparities and how those with considerately smaller sized networks, can still be considered to have greater wealth of social capital, if they were to have access to substantial amounts of economic or cultural capital. This can be depicted through Bourdieu’s idea of the “multiplier effect” coming into play when all the types of capital coincide with one another (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 249), leading to amplified gains. These ideas are further reiterated through the studies conducted by Siisiäinen (2000) who found that a reason behind why profit levels may vary between groups who may have similar levels of economic and cultural capital, is down the control they have over their social capital. Those with more power and influence, i.e. upper- and middle-class individuals can better utilise the capital made available to them, thus maximising their potential utility gain.


To conclude, the notions brought forward by Bourdieu on capital are strongly associated by the fact they are all collectively influenced by social class. Bourdieu’s various studies had indicated that the preservation of both social and cultural capital within affluent middle- and upper-class families, was made possible through the fact that these forms of capitals, along with economic capital, are utilised so that they reinforce each other (Reay, 2004). Critics of the Bourdieuan view of capital claim that Bourdieu’s studies are limited due to the fact that they are only relevant contextually, reflecting French society in the late 20th century (Reay, 2004). Reay (2004) contests this as she reflects on Bourdieu’s view of his own findings and claims that he had an understanding that his work should not be “general models or rigid frameworks” (p. 75). (1504)


  • Bourdieu, P. (1986). ‘The Forms of Capital’. J. Richardson, J. (ed) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York, Greenwood, pp. 241-58. 
  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction’. J. Karabel and A.H. Halsey (ads.). Power and Ideology in Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Bridge, G. (2006). `It’s not just a question of taste: Gentrification, the Neighbourhood, and Cultural
  • Capital’. Environment and Planning A, 38, pp. 1965-1978.
  • Coskuner-Balli, G., and Thompson, C, J. (2013). ‘The Status Costs of Subordinate Cultural Capital: At Home Fathers’ Collective Pursuit of Cultural Legitimacy through Capitalizing Consumption Practices’. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 40 (1), pp. 19-41
  • Holt, D. B. (1998). ‘Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption?’. Journal of Consumer Research, 25 (1), pp. 1-25
  • Lareau, A. (1987). ‘Social Class Differences in Family-School Relationships: The Importance of Cultural Capital’. Sociology of Education, 60, pp. 73-85.
  • Lareau, A., and Horvat, E. M. (1999). ‘Moments of Social Inclusion and Exclusion: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Family-School Relationships’. Sociology of Education, 72, pp. 37–53.
  • Reay, D. (2004). ‘Education and Cultural Capital: The Implications of Changing Trends in Education Policies’. Journal of Cultural Trends, 13(2), 73-86.
  • Sullivan, A. (2001). ‘Cultural Capital and Educational Attainment’. Sociology, 34 (4), pp. 893-912.
  • Siisiäinen, M. (2000). ‘Two Concepts of Social Capital: Bourdieu vs. Putnam’. In ISTR Fourth International Conference: The Third Sector: For What and for Whom? Dublin, Ireland: Trinity College.
  • Throsby, D. (1999). ‘Cultural Capital’. Journal of Cultural Economics, 23 (1–2), pp. 3–12.
    Townley, B. Grewar, M. and Winter, J. (2013). ‘Thinking in Capital Mode’. ESRC Research Capacity Building Clusters Conference Position Paper.


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