Pierre bourdieu: cultural capital

The Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is the theorist most closely associated with developing the concept of cultural capital and applying it to education.

Bourdieu argued that each class has its own cultural framework, or set of norms, values and ideas which he calls the habitus. This habitus contains a set of assumptions about what counts as good and bad taste which influences the kind of leisure activities different classes engage in, the kind of places they visit, where they go on holiday, the kind of television programmes they are likely to watch, what kinds of books they are likely to read and the type of music they are likely to listen to.

The middle-class habitus places much more value on the following kinds of activities, and thus these are the kinds of activities which middle class children are more likely to be exposed to compared to working class children:

  • Reading non-fiction and classical literature rather than pop literature
  • Watching documentaries rather than soap operas
  • Learning to play classical instruments (e.g. The Piano
  • Going on educational visits – to museums and art galleries for example
  • Going on holidays abroad (to ‘broaden horizons’)

Exposure to the above activities provides middle class children with ‘cultural capital’ – many of the above activities are inherently educational in nature and provide middle class children with skills and knowledge which give them an advantage at school. This knowledge can either be specific – such as with reading non-fiction, or more general – such as cultural trips providing children with a sense of independence and self-confidence.

Middle class culture is also the dominant culture in most schools, and schools place high value on the above types of middle-class skills and knowledge. Middle class children thus ‘just fit in’ with middle class schools, they are at home in a middle-class environment, they don’t need to do anything else other than be themselves in order to belong and thrive at school.

In contrast, working class culture (with its immediate gratification and restricted speech codes) is seen as inferior by most schools. The default assumption of the school in regards to working class children is that school is somewhere where working class children are taught to be more middle class – thus by default working class culture is devalued and working-class children are more likely to struggle in education as a result.

Educational Capital

One important aspect of cultural capital theory is educational capital – middle class parents are educated to a higher level than working class parents (they are more likely to have university degrees) – an obvious advantage of this is that they are more able to help children with homework throughout their school careers, but they are also more likely to socialise their children into thinking that going to university is a normal part of life – and thus good GCSEs and A levels are a necessity rather than being a choice.