Last Updated on May 12, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Cultural Capital can be defined as the skills and knowledge which an individual can draw on to give them an advantage in social life. In this post, I explore and then look at how cultural capital can give children an advantage in education.
Cultural capital is one of the most important concepts within the sociology of education, and it goes a long way to explaining why middle class children do better in education than working class children.
- Capital can be defined as any assets that can improve your life chances.
- Cultural Capital – having the skills, knowledge, norms and values which can be used to get ahead in education and life more generally.
- Social Capital – possession of social contacts that can ‘open doors’
- Educational capital – middle class parents having higher levels of qualifications.
- The Habitus – Bourdieu’s concept describing a cultural framework, or set of norms and values which contains a set of taken for granted assumptions about good and bad tastes. (It is essentially the same as cultural capital).
Cultural Capital Theory
Cultural Capital Theory is a Marxist theory of differential educational achievement.
In contrast to cultural deprivation theory, cultural capital theory does not see working class culture as inferior, or lacking in any way, it just sees it as different to middle class culture. Instead of blaming working class underachievement on flawed working-class culture, cultural capital theory focuses on the dominance of middle class culture in society and social institutions.
In short, middle class children are more likely to succeed because the education system is run by the middle classes and works in their interests. The middle classes are able to define their own culture as superior and thus working class culture and working class children are marginalised in the education system and end up underachieving.
Pierre Bourdieu and The Habitus
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.
One important (and easy to understand) 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 the 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.
Research on Cultural Capital
This is one of the more researched concepts in recent decades and there have been several studies since the late 1980s which have put cultural capital theory to the test, including:
- Dianna Reay – Middle Class Mothers Make The Difference
- Stephen Ball – The 1988 Education Act gave middle class parents more choice
- Alice Sullivan – A Quantitative Study of how cultural capital effects 400 children
- Why do Working Class Kids Lack Aspiration (Broad support for Cultural Capital Theory).
The remainder of this section summarises some of this research (links to more in depth posts forthcoming)
A quantitative analysis of Bourdieu’s theory
Alice Sullivan conducted a survey with 465 children approaching school leaving age in 1998, using the the educational qualifications of the parent with the highest status job to measure parental cultural capital.
Students were asked about the activities they engaged in such as the kind of books they read, the television programmes they watched, the music they listened to and whether they played a musical instrument. They were also tested on their knowledge of cultural figures, their vocabulary and how much they visited museums and art galleries.
Sullivan conducted quantitative analysis to find out which of the above variables affected GCSE results and found that those who read more widely and read more complex fiction and those who watched arts, science and current affairs programmes achieved better GCSE results.
Music and attending cultural events had no effect on GCSE scores.
Sullivan also found that students’ cultural capital was strongly correlated with that of their parents, which in turn was correlated with their social class background.
HOWEVER, Sullivan also found that there were strong differences in educational achievement within middle class students and within working class students, so cultural capital alone does not automatically mean middle class kids will do better, or working class kids will fail.
Other factors such as parental interest and involvement in a child’s education and material factors also contribute to educational achievement.
Positive Evaluations of Cultural Capital Theory
- Cultural capital seems more relevant now with neoliberal education policies – marketisation (and free schools) gave parents and schools more freedom – middle class parents and schools use this freedom to exclude the working classes.
- Social capital theory is useful in explaining the punishingly depressing fact that privately educated children often use their social networks to get internships to get them into the ‘professions’.
- Unlike cultural deprivation theory Bourdieu etc. do not see working class culture as inferior or blame the working classes for the failure of their children.
- The theory links inside and outside school factors – middle class families and middle class schools work together to exclude working class children (especially see Ball’s idea about the school-parent alliance).
- The theory may be more relevant now with the establishment of Free Schools – Only middle class parents really have the cultural capital necessary to set up Free Schools.
Criticisms of Cultural Capital Theory
- Most statistical research suggests material deprivation and economic capital are more significant factors than cultural capital in explaining class differences in educational achievement.
- It may be unfair to blame schools for being biased against working class children – many schools put extra resources into helping working class children.
- From a research methods point of view, it is more difficult to research and test out some aspects of cultural capital theory – how do you measure the effect of piano lessons on educational achievement for example?
- If cultural deprivation theory is true – there are no practical solutions to reducing class inequalities in education within the existing system – more radical (revolutionary?) changes are necessary.
Cultural Capital Theory – A Summary of The Key Ideas:
- Marxist Theory
- Middle Class Socialisation = Cultural Advantage– Literature, Classical Music and Museums
- Middle Class Parents better educated = help with homework/ University seen as necessary
- Stephen Ball – Skilled Choosers and the School Parent Alliance
- Related concept = Social Capital = Internship in friends Dad’s Law Firm = UNFAIR
- Positive Evaluation – Blames the middle classes/ More relevant with 1988 and Free Schools
- Negative Evaluation – Money matters more/ no practical solutions to WC failure.
Examples of Cultural Capital in Action
- Parents encouraging their children to read.
- Parents taking their children on a trip to a museum.
- Parents taking their children on a cultural sight seeing tour abroad.
- Parents encouraging their children to learn the Piano.
- Parents helping their children with homework.
- Parents using their research skills to research which school to send their child to.
- Parents phoning the school to get their children extra support lessons.
- Parents taking their child for a dyslexia test to get them extra time in exams.
For a briefer version of what’s above see this post: The effects of cultural and social capital on education.
For more information on Bordieu, you might like this external post: Bourdieu’s foundational concept of the Habitus.
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