Cultural Capital and Social class differences in educational achievement

cultural capital refers to the skills, knowledge, attitudes and tastes through which typically middle class parents are able to give their children an advantage in life compared to working class children.

Last Updated on March 2, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Cultural Capital refers to the skills and knowledge middle class parents have that they can use to give their children an advantage in the education system.

A closely related concept is Social Capital, which is the support and information provided by contacts and social networks which can be converted into educational success and material rewards.

cultural capital

Cultural capital theory is sometimes seen as the opposite of cultural deprivation theory which blames educational failure of the working classes on the inferior values of their parents.

In contrast cultural capital theory is about middle class advantage. It is about middle class parents being able to give more help to their children which means they do better in school compared to working class children.

Schools are seen as middle class institutions (teachers and managers are middle class) and so middle class kids tend to fit in with school norms more easily, and are less likely to clash with the school, which also helps with their education.

Three ways parents use their cultural capital

  1. Middle class parents are better educated and are more able to help their children with homework
  2. Middle class parents are more skilled in researching schools
  3. Middle class parents teach their children the value of deferred gratification.

Two ways parents use their social capital

  1. They speak to parents of children who already attend the best schools
  2. They are more likely to know professionals who work in the best schools

Supporting evidence for cultural capital theory

Diane Reay (1988) argued that mothers make cultural capital work for their children. Her research is based on the mothers of 33 children at two London primary schools. The mothers of working class children worked just as hard as the middle class mothers. But the cultural capital of the MC mothers gave their children an advantage.

Middle Class Mothers had more educational qualifications and more information about how the educational system operated. They used this cultural capital to help their children with homework, bolstering their confidence and sorting out their problems with teachers.

Stephen Ball (2006) has argued that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. Ball refers to middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. They use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.

Something else Ball referred to was the the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general the schools with more middle class students have better results.. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market. 

Analysis point

For the sociologists in this section, the cause of lower class failure is the very existence of inequality itself in society and differences in power held by the working and middle classes.

The role of cultural capital: evaluations

  • Cultural capital has proved difficult to operationalise and measure
  • However, more and more research suggests this is important in explaining middle class success and working class failure
  • Helps to explain why the Middle classes always do better despite compensatory education
Sources/ Find out More

For a more in depth look at the concept of cultural capital please see Cultural Capital and Education (extended version)

Stephen Ball (2006) Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: the market as a class strategy in the UK and the USA

Signposting and related posts

Cultural capital theory is one of the main theories which explains social class differences in educational achievement along with

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