Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments

Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments
Author(s): Michele Lamont and Annette Lareau
Source: Sociological Theory, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 153-168
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Princeton University
Southern Illinois University
at Carbondale
The concept of cultural capital has been increasingly used in American sociology to study
the impact of cultural reproduction on social reproduction. However, much confusion
surrounds this concept. In this essay, we disentangle Bourdieu and Passeron’s original work
on cultural capital, specifying the theoretical roles cultural capital plays in their model, and
the various types of high status signals they are concerned with. We expand on their work by
proposing a new definition of cultural capital which focuses on cultural and social
exclusion. We note a number of theoretical ambiguities and gaps in the original model, as
well as specific methodological problems. In the second section, we shift our attention to the
American literature on cultural capital. We discuss its assumptions and compare it with the
original work. We also propose a research agenda which focuses on social and cultural
selection and decouples cultural capital from the French context in which it was originally
conceived to take into consideration the distinctive features of American culture. This
agenda consists in 1) assessing the relevance of the concept of legitimate culture in the U.S.;
2) documenting the distinctive American repertoire of high status cultural signals; and 3)
analyzing how cultural capital is turned into profits in America.
Culture has recently become an “in” topic in
both American and European sociology. This
trend is not an intellectual fad, as a large
number of researchers are seriously engaged
in dealing with the theoretically central issue
of the interaction between culture and social
structure. We are here concerned with
scrutinizing a small segment of this growing
field, the recent work on cultural capital. This
concept-defined as high status cultural
signals used in cultural and social selectionwas first developed by Pierre Bourdieu and
Jean-Claude Passeron to analyze how culture
and education contribute to social reproduction. Born in France, the concept of cultural
capital has been imported to the U.S. and
used to account for phenomena ranging from
the political attitudes of the new middle class
(Gouldner 1979; Lamont 1986; Martin and
Szelenyi 1987), to the structure of the
stratification system (Collins 1979), the
reproduction of educational inequality (Apple
* This is a revised version of a paper presented at the
annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, New York, August 1986. A number of persons
commented on an earlier version of this manuscript. We
are particularly grateful to Randall Collins, Paul
DiMaggio, Frank Dobbin, Samuel Kaplan, Walter
Wallace, and Marsha Witten for their comments and
1982; Apple and Weis 1985; Caroy 1982;
Cookson and Persell 1985a; Giroux 1983),
and the influence of family background on
school experience, educational attainment,
and marital selection (DiMaggio 1982; DiMaggio and Mohr 1985; Ganzeboom 1986;
Lareau 1987).
As work dealing with cultural capital has
grown, the concept has come to assume a
large number of, at times, contradictory
meanings. Cultural capital has been operationalized as knowledge of high culture (DiMaggio and Useem 1978) and educational
attainment (Robinson and Gamier 1985).
Others defined it as the curriculum of elite
schools (Cookson and Persell 1985a), the
symbolic mastery of “practices” (Martin and
Szelenyi 1987), the capacity to perform tasks
in culturally acceptable ways (Gouldner
1979), and participation in high culture events
(DiMaggio and Mohr 1985). Still other
researchers viewed cultural capital as “symbols
. . in accord with specific class interests”
(Dubin 1986) and “the stock of ideas and
concepts acquired from previous encounters”
(Collins 1987). This proliferation of definitions, undoubtedly a sign of intellectual
vitality-and possibly, of the fruitfulness of
the concept-has created sheer confusion. We
are now reaching a point where the concept
could become obsolete, as those using it
equate it with notions as different as human
Sociological Theory, 1988, Vol. 6 (Fall:153-168) 153
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capital, elite culture, and high culture. An
attempt at theoretical clarification is long
But clarifying the concept presumes that it
can be put to good use. Why is cultural
capital important? Is it something other than a
faddish new term used to address the
perennial status issues which have fascinated
researchers from the days of Weber and
Veblen on? We will argue that if the concept
does not point to phenomena much different
from those of concern to these traditional
sociologists, its underlying theory provides a
considerably more complex and far-reaching
conceptual framework to deal with the
phenomenon of cultural and social selection.
The concept of cultural capital is also
important because it has improved our
understanding of the process through which
social stratification systems are maintained.
As noted by Bielby (1981), Cicourel and
Mehan (1984), and Knorr-Cetina and Cicourel (1981), while the effect of social origin on
educational and occupational outcomes is
among the most studied topics in the
sociological literature, little progress has been
made toward understanding how this relationship is reproduced. Bourdieu and Passeron’s
work (1979[1964]) received wide-spread attention at first because it proposed a novel
view of the process by which social and
cultural resources of family life shape academic success in a subtle and pervasive
fashion. These authors’ earlier work showed
that apparently neutral academic standards are
laden with specific cultural class resources
acquired at home. Following Bernstein’s
(1964; 1977) observation that working class
and middle class children are taught different
language “codes” at home, Bourdieu and
Passeron (1979[1964]) argued that other types
of preferences, attitudes and behaviors, such
as familiarity with high culture, are valued in
school settings, while being more typical of
the culture transmitted in “dominant classes”
(i.e., upper-middle and middle class) families.
Bourdieu and Passeron’s work also improved upon existing studies of social reproduction and mobility because their theory was
structural, yet it left room for human agency.
Indeed, they argued that individuals’ social
position and family background provide them
with social and cultural resources which need
to be actively “invested” to yield social
profits. This contrasts with labor market
studies which assume a preexisting occupational and organizational structure of “empty
places” (Hodson and Kaufmann 1982).
This paper pursues several interrelated
goals. First, it disentangles the original work
on cultural capital, specifying the theoretical
roles cultural capital plays in Bourdieu and
Passeron’s model, and the various types of
high status signals the authors are concerned
with. We expand on the original work by
proposing a new definition of cultural capital
which focuses on cultural and social exclusion. We note a number of theoretical
ambiguities and gaps in the original model, as
well as specific methodological problems. In
the second section, we shift our attention to
the American literature on cultural capital.
We discuss its assumptions and compare it
with the original work. We also propose a
research agenda which decouples cultural
capital from the French context in which it
was originally conceived to take into consideration the distinctive features of American
1. The seminal question
The concept of cultural capital was developed
by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron
to analyze the impact of culture on the class
system and on the relationship between action
and social structure.2 The authors were first
In an analysis of marital strategies in a French
village, Bourdieu (1976[1972]) draws an analogy with
players in a card game. Players are dealt different cards
(e.g. social and cultural capital), but the outcome is
dependent on not only the cards (and the rules of the
game) but the skills with which individuals play their
cards. Depending on their “investment patterns” individuals can realize different amounts of social profits from
relatively similar social and cultural resources.
2 The first work mentioning the concept of cultural
capital was an article titled “The School as a Conservative Force” (Bourdieu 1974[1966], p. 32), where a
quickly abandoned concept of “national cultural capital”
is proposed to describe national cultural supplies (see also
Bourdieu and Schnapper 1966). The theoretical framework in which the concept of cultural capital is used had
been developed in collaboration with Jean-Claude
Passeron (Inheritors (1979[1964]); Les etudiants et leurs
etudes [1964]), Reproduction (1977[1970] and Monique
de St-Martin (Rapport Pddagogique et Communication
1965). Bourdieu and Passeron parted after 1970.
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concerned with “the contribution made by the
educational system [and family socialization]
to the reproduction of the structure of power
relationships and symbolic relationships between classes, by contributing to the reproduction of the structure of distribution of cultural
capital among these classes” (Bourdieu
1977a[1971], p. 487). The well-known argument goes as follows: schools are not socially
neutral institutions but reflect the experiences
of the “dominant class.” Children from this
class enter school with key social and cultural
cues, while working class and lower class
students must acquire the knowledge and
skills to negotiate their educational experience
after they enter school. Although they can
acquire the social, linguistic, and cultural
competencies which characterize the uppermiddle and middle class, they can never
achieve the natural familiarity of those born to
these classes and are academically penalized
on this basis. Because differences in academic achievement are normally explained by
differences in ability rather than by cultural
resources transmitted by the family, social
transmission of privileges is itself legitimized,
for academic standards are not seen as
handicapping lower class children.
Bourdieu and Passeron’s argument on
social reproduction is in some respects similar
to the arguments made by researchers who
studied the discriminatory character of schools
by looking at language interaction patterns
(Heath 1982; 1983), counseling and placement (Cicourel and Kitsuse 1969), ability
groupings ( Rist 1970), the implementation of
the curriculum (Anyon 1981), and authority
relations in the classroom (Wilcox 1982).
These studies have all pointed to the subtle
and not so subtle ways that formally meritocratic institutions help to recreate systems of
social stratification. However, rather than
interpreting these patterns as examples of an
individual’s or school’s discriminatory behavior, Bourdieu and Passeron saw these behaviors as institutionalized. Their analysis was
more structural, and as such provided a
sociologically more powerful framework for
explaining the “taken-for-granted routines”
of daily life.
Bourdieu has continued to develop his general theory,
while Passeron has worked on a number of theoretical
problems, including cultural reproduction (Passeron
2. Disentangling the concept
A close reading of Bourdieu and Passeron’s
work on cultural capital suggests that the
authors group under this concept a large
number of types of cultural attitudes, preferences, behaviors, and goods, and that the
concept performs different roles in their
various writings. In Inheritors (Bourdieu and
Passeron 1979[1964]), cultural capital consists of informal academic standards which
are also a class attributes of the dominant
class. These standards and attributes are:
informal knowledge about the school, traditional humanist culture, linguistic competence
and specific attitudes, or personal style (e.g.,
ease, naturalness, aloofness, creativity, distinction and “brilliance”). In Reproduction
(Bourdieu and Passeron 1977[1970]), the
concept retains its original definition as
academic standards. However, the constitutive items are narrowed, and some are defined
in more detail. Cultural capital is described as
including only linguistic aptitude (grammar,
accent, tone), previous academic culture,
formal knowledge and general culture, as
well as diplomas. Attitudes toward school,
manners and personal style, and taste for high
culture are now conceived of as class ethos
rather than cultural capital. In Distinction
(Bourdieu 1984[1979]), cultural capital plays
a radically different theoretical role: it is an
indicator and a basis of class position;
cultural attitudes, preferences and behaviors
are conceptualized as “tastes” which are
being mobilized for social selection. Bourdieu shows that tastes vary with cultural and
economic capital (i.e., with occupational
differences in level of education and income).
In other words, disaggregated dimensions of
cultural capital (credentials on the one hand,
and preferences and behaviors on the other)
are the dependent and the independent
variables (1984[1979], p. 81).3 Finally, in
“Les strategies de reconversion” (Bourdieu,
Boltanski, and St-Martin 1973, p. 93),
cultural capital is a power resource (technical, scientific, economic or political expertise) facilitating access to organizational
3 Elsewhere, Bourdieu (1974[1966], p. 327) argues
that ideally, cultural capital should be measured with an
index combining items such as the level of formal
education of one’s parents and grandparents, the size of
one’s place of origin and residence-which influence
access to cultural events-and the frequency of one’s
cultural activities.
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positions (for a similar perspective, cf. the
new class theorists Bazelon 1963; Bell 1973),
and simultaneously an indicator for class
Therefore, in Bourdieu’s global theoretical
framework, cultural capital is alternatively an
informal academic standard, a class attribute,
a basis for social selection, and a resource for
power which is salient as an indicator/basis of
class position. Subtle shifts across these
analytical levels are found throughout the
work. This polysemy makes for the richness
of Bourdieu’s writings, and is a standard of
excellence in French academia (Lamont
1987a). However, the absence of explicit
statements makes systematic comparison and
assessment of the work extremely difficult.
Unfortunately, the forms of cultural capital
enumerated by Bourdieu, which range from
attitudes to preferences, behaviors and goods,
cannot all perform the five aforementioned
theoretical functions: for instance, while
“previous academic culture” can be salient as
an informal academic standard, it cannot
constitute an indicator of class position,
because it is not an essential class characteristic. Neither can it constitute a power
resource (in the sense used by new class
theorists), because it does not give access to
positions in organizations. Also, level of
education cannot be a signal of dominant
class culture, because it is a continuous
variable that applies to members of all
Because of these incompatibilities between
functions and forms of cultural capital, and
because of the confusion with the original
model, we need to simplify the latter and use
the term cultural capital to refer to the
performance of a narrower set of functions.
The idea of cultural capital used as a basis for
exclusion from jobs, resources, and high
status groups is one of the most important and
original dimensions of Bourdieu and Passeron’s theory (cf., p. 158). For this reason, we
propose to define cultural capital as institutionalized, i.e., widely shared, high status
cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and cultural exclusion,
the former referring to exclusion from jobs
and resources, and the latter, to exclusion
from high status groups. This definition is
encompassing as it also includes signals
operating as informal academic standards,
and those that are dominant class attributes,
for both types perform exclusivist functions.
New terms need to be coined for the
remaining functions of cultural capital with
which we are not concerned here.4
Examples of cultural capital as high status
cultural signals would be 1) thinking that
knowing what a good wine is is important
[attitude]; 2) knowing how to consume and
evaluate wine [formal knowledge]; 3) liking
not only “certified” good wines, but “oses”
ones as well (i.e., having enough confidence
in one’s taste to define signals that are not
wide-spread as legitimate and to be able to
manipulate the code) [preference and attitude]; 4) having a sense of how conspicuous
wine consumption should be to be tastefully
done [behavior and attitude]; 5) having a wine
cellar [possession of a good]. For those who
don’t share such signals, other more general
examples might apply: owning a luxury car or
a large house [possession of a good], being
thin and healthy [preference and behavior],
being at ease with abstract thinking [attitude],
knowing how to send signals of one’s
competence [behavior], being a good citizen
[attitude], knowing the appropriate range of
topics of conversation in specific settings
[behavior], having upper-middle class speech
patterns [behavior], and having scientific
expertise, and a well-rounded culture [formal
For any of these signals to be considered a
form of cultural capital, it needs to be defined
as a high status cultural signal by a relatively
large group of people: the institutionalized or
shared quality of these signals make them
salient as status markers. Contrary to Coleman and Rainwater (1978), Bourdieu is not
concerned with how individuals gain status,
but with the institutionalized structure of
4 Bourdieu (1987[1979]) distinguishes three types of
cultural capital: embodied (or incorporated) cultural
capital (i.e., the legitimate cultural attitudes, preferences,
and behaviors [which he calls practices] that are
internalized during the socialization process), objectified
cultural capital (i.e., the transmittable goods-books,
computers, particle accelerators, paintings-that require
embodied cultural capital to be appropriated), and
institutionalized cultural capital (i.e., the degrees and
diplomas which certify the value of embodied cultural
capital items). Therefore “institutionalized cultural capital” could be used to refer to cultural capital performing
the functions of power resource and indicator to class
position: because it is certified, widely diffused across
classes and quantifiable, it can be used as an indicator of
class position. It can also refer to cultural capital used as
a power resource, because credentials facilitate access to
organizational positions.
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unequally valued signals itself; therefore,
again, he adopts a more structural and less
individualistic approach to status attribution.
The authors often use the term “legitimate
culture” interchangeably with cultural capital.5
Yet, they don’t specify if by legitimate
culture they mean signals which are largely
believed to be “most valued” (i.e., prestigious) or if they refer to those that are
“respectable” (i.e., good but not prestigious)
(Bourdieu 1984[1979], p. 228). This is a
significant distinction because prestigious
signals would be salient for controlling access
to high status positions, while “respectable”
signals would act to exclude lower class
members from middle class circle.6
It is important to note in this context that
we believe that lower class high status
cultural signals (e.g., being streetwise) perform within the lower class the same
exclusivist function that the legitimate culture
performs in the middle and the upper-middle
class. However, for the purpose of clarity, the
term cultural capital is not applied to these
signals because they cannot be equated with
the legitimate culture. A new concept needs
to be coined for these signals; “marginal high
status signal” is a potential candidate.
3. Methodological issue
The original theory presents problems of
operationalization. First, each signal provides
an indication of one’s global cultural capital
(i.e., familiarity with the overall repertoire of
5 In Reproduction (1977[1970], p. 46), cultural capital
is defined as cultural goods and values that are
transmitted through class differentiated families and
whose value as cultural capital varies with its cultural
distance (dissimilarity?) from the dominant cultural
culture promoted by dominant agencies of socialization.
This suggests that various types of cultural capital could
have different values, and that some are even “illegitimate,” or of low value. However, most of Bourdieu’s
writings suggest that cultural capital refers only to highly
valued signals.
6 Bourdieu is not concerned with describing the
mechanisms through which arbitrary practices and
preferences become legitimate. Cultural producers are
seen as central in this process (Bourdieu 1985b), but we
don’t know how the legitimate culture makes its way
from the cultural producers to the public-the work of
Featherstone (1988) on the historical constitution of the
cultural sphere provides interesting pointers. Goffman
(1951, p. 31) called for empirical studies that would trace
out the social career of particular status symbols. The
“production-of-culture” approach provides leads concerning how to study groups of cultural producers (Becker
1982; Peterson 1979).
high status cultural signals). The researcher
wanting to evaluate a person’s cultural capital
would have to reconstruct the code prevailing
in this person’s environment in its entirety-a
most difficult task-before estimating the
individual performance. Second, information
on the weight or value of each signal in the
code (e.g., wine vs sports “connoisseurship”)
is necessary-an issue not mentioned by
Bourdieu. Third, one has to identify the
cut-off point between signals that are too
commonly used to be effective in exclusion,
or not used enough for people to recognize
them as status signals. These problems are all
related to the methodological issue of identifying what is cultural capital.
In Distinction, Bourdieu deals with this
issue by using survey data to identify the
lifestyles and preferences of stratified occupational groups-he is concerned with signals
pertaining to cultural consumption (books,
music, art, movies), vital consumption
(clothes, food, furniture), ways of entertaining, personal qualities valued, and ethical
preferences. After showing a correspondence
a la Mannheim between class, and lifestyles
and preferences-providing no information
on the statistical significance of the relationship-Bourdieu suggests that a legitimate and
a “dominated” culture exist because the value
of cultural preferences and behaviors are defined relationally around structuring binary oppositions such as high/low, pure/impure, distinguished/vulgar, and aesthetic/useful (1984
[1979], p. 245). Cultural legitimacy is attributed to specific practices in contrast to other
practices; the value of each element of a system being defined in relation to the other elements of this same system. The cultural preferences and attitudes of the dominant class
make up the legitimate culture, while the cultural preferences of the “dominated class” make
up the dominated culture.7
7 Bourdieu (1984[1979], p. 316) defines classes by the
volume and the proportion of economic and cultural
capital that socio-professional groups have; the more
capital groups have, the higher they are positioned on the
vertical dimension of the stratification system, for they
have more resources at their disposal to influence their
environment. The proportion of economic and cultural
capital individuals have differentiates them by determining their interests in favoring cultural or economic capital
as standards of social positioning; for instance, intellectuals and professors attach more importance to culture as
a standard in contrast to businessmen. The dominant
class would be composed of engineers, senior executives,
and industrial and commercial employers, on the one
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This solution does not seem to be satisfying: in a large and highly differentiated
society, the defining process is not a zero-sum
one, as cultural practices are not all compared
continuously and equally to one another, the
situation posited by Bourdieu being as
unlikely as ideal market conditions.8 Consequently, the relational answer is empirically
insufficient-although analytically appealing,
as suggested by the success of structuralism.
This conclusion is supported by evidence
showing that dominated groups have their
own standards and sets of norms which can be
relatively autonomous from the dominant
ones (Grignon and Passeron 1985, Hebdige
1979, Horowitz 1983, Willis 1977); this
research suggests that the value of cultural
practices is not defined relationally. Bourdieu’s theoretical framework implicitly presumes that lower class standards are not
autonomous, and that dominated groups have
been eliminated from the competition for the
definition of the legitimate culture.
4. Exclusion and power
Implicitly building on Weber’s and Goffman’s theories of status, Bourdieu argues that
cultural capital is used by dominant groups to
mark cultural distance and proximity, monopolize privileges, and exclude and recruit new
occupants of high status positions (1984[1979],
p. 31). Whereas Weber (1946; 1968) is more
concerned with prestige and inter-group status
boundaries (e.g., castes, ethnic groups),
Bourdieu, like Douglas and Isherwood (1979),
adopts a more Durkheimian approach, and
focuses on the necessary classificatory (or
marking) effects of cultural practices. To use
Goffman’s terminology, cultural capital is
seen as an “interpersonal identifier of social
ranking,” which is only recognized as such
by those who possess the legitimate culture; it
is a basis for status boundaries as it signals
hand, and of artists, intellectuals and cultural specialists,
and occupational groups which have cultural authority
(e.g., psychologists, professors, interior decorators,
critics) on the other (Bourdieu 1984[1979], p. 232).
8 Here we see how Bourdieu’s model could have been
influenced by its context of elaboration, i.e., the small
and relatively culturally unified Parisian scene, where
positions are more likely to be defined relationally than it
is the case in a larger, highly regionally diversified
society with no single cultural center, such as the U.S.
(see Lemert 1981 on the conditions of intellectual
production in Paris for instance).
participation in high status groups and
distance from cultural practices, preferences,
and groups that are ” ‘common’, ‘easy’,
‘natural’, and ‘undemanding’ ” (Bourdieu
1984[1979], p. 31). It is used to exclude and
unify people, not only lower status groups,
but equals as well. Exclusion is not seen as
typical of special “status” groups, such as the
Chinese literati, but exists to various degrees
throughout the social fabric.
It is worth noting that in contrast to Veblen
who dealt with conspicuous consumption
(i.e., “showing-off” which would normally
be a conscious act), Bourdieu (1977b[1972];
1988, p. 3) thinks that most signals are sent
unconsciously because they are learned through
family socialization, and incorporated as
dispositions, or habitus, or are the unintended
classificatory results of cultural codes. Also,
cultural exclusion is conceived of as intrinsic
to moder society, rather than as a phenomenon likely to disappear with the diffusion of
capitalism and the decline of status groups.
We suggest that Bourdieu and Passeron
build on Weber in an important way by
introducing a more complex conception of the
process of exclusion. They are concerned
with four major forms of exclusion: selfelimination, overselection, relegation, and
direct selection. In the case of selfelimination, individuals adjust their aspirations to their perceived chances of success
(Bourdieu 1974[1966], p. 35). They also
exclude themselves because they do not feel
at ease in specific social settings where they
are not familiar with specific cultural norms.
In the case of overselection, individuals with
less-valued cultural resources are subjected to
the same type of selection as those who are
culturally privileged and have to perform
equally well despite their cultural handicap,
which in fact means that they are asked to
perform more than others (Bourdieu and
Passeron 1979[1964], p. 14). In the case of
relegation, individuals with less-valued cultural resources end up in less desirable
positions and get less out of their educational
investment. Their cultural disadvantage is
manifested under the forms of “relay mechanisms such as early, often ill-informed
decisions, forced choice, and lost time”
(Bourdieu and Passeron 1979[1964], p. 14).
These three forms can be distinguished from
direct exclusion resulting from “elective
affinities” based on similarities in taste (with
which Weber was mostly concerned). BeThis content downloaded from on Mon, 23 Dec 2013 13:05:16 PM
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cause this more sophisticated approach to
indirect exclusion is one of the most original
aspects of Bourdieu and Passeron’s work, we
decided to retain exclusion as the central
dimension of the concept of cultural capital.
Bourdieu does not explicitly state the
theory of power underlying his work.9
However, it is clear that he conceives
exclusion to be one of the most pervasive
forms of power. It produces “dehumanization, frustration, disruption, anguish, revolt, humiliation, resentment, disgust, despair, alienation, apathy, fatalist resignation,
dependency, and aggressiveness” (1961
[1958], p. 161); cf., also Sennett and Cobb
1973). The power exercised through cultural
capital is not a power of influence over
specific decisions (Dahl 1968), or over the
setting of the political agenda (Bachrach and
Baratz 1962). Rather, it is first and foremost a
power to shape other peoples’ lives through
exclusion and symbolic imposition (Bourdieu
and Passeron 1977[1970], p. 18). In particular, it is a power of legitimating the claim that
specific cultural norms and practices are
superior, and of institutionalizing these claims
to regulate behavior and access to resources.
The capacity of a class to make its particular
preferences and practices seem natural and
authoritative is the key to its control. These
become standard through society while
shrouded in a cloak of neutrality, and the
educational system adopts them to evaluate
students (Bourdieu 1974[1966], p. 349).
Thereby, the “dominant class” exercises
symbolic violence, i.e., “the power . . . to
impose meanings . . . as legitimate by
concealing the power relations which are the
basis of its force” (Bourdieu and Passeron
1977[1970], p. 4; also Thompson 1984).
Another implicit theory of power present in
Bourdieu’s general theoretical apparatus is
one which, similarly to the exchange theory
of power, focuses on the dependency and
maximalization of resources-however, in
Bourdieu’s work, individuals adjust their
investments to their probability of success,
9 Elsewhere, Bourdieu implicitly addresses the problem of power. In Algeria 60 (1979[1977], p. 51), he
writes: “The degree of freedom conferred on each
worker, the freedom to choose his job and his employer,
the freedom to demand respect in work relationships,
varies considerably according to socio-occupational
category, income, and especially the degree of skill and
level of education. Similarly, the field of possible [sic]
tends to expand as one rises in the social hierarchy.”
which explains why they do not all behave
like homines economici.’0 Cultural capital is
seen as one of several resources (along with
social, economic and symbolic capital) in
which individuals invest, and which can be
converted into one another to maximize one’s
upward mobility (1985a, p. 724). It is mostly
converted into symbolic capital, i.e., legitimacy and prestige, a point that conceptually
differentiates cultural capital from human
capital.”1 The market metaphor seems to us
justified because the various types of capitals
are rare and highly desirable resources, and
are used as generalized medium of exchange;
however, we believe that this metaphor is less
suitable in societies where the cultural
consensus is weak, and where the definition
of high status cultural signals, and their
yields, varies across groups.
We have argued that Bourdieu and Passeron provide a more structural approach to
discrimination in school settings, cultural
selection and status attribution by focusing on
institutionalized signals. They also provide a
more sophisticated conception of social exclusion than Weber does, as they point out
various forms of indirect exclusion. Yet, even
if Bourdieu’s work is extremely rich and
10 One of several differences between Bourdieu’s work
and the exchange theory of power is that the latter pays
much attention to how dependence arises from individuals’ emotional (or subjective) investment in resources
(e.g., Emerson 1962). Bourdieu seems to assume that the
control of resources alone triggers dependency; at least,
he does not discuss how variations in need, availability,
and emotional investment affects dependency relations
and power. 1 Bourdieu considers both the symbolic and the
economic profits bestowed by cultural capital, while
human capital theorists ignore symbolic profits. Also,
human capital theorists neglect the structure of possible
profits, which varies by social class and which, according
to Bourdieu, explains differences in investment in
cultural capital: “Economists might seem to deserve
credit for explicitly raising the question of the relationship between the rates of profit on educational investment
and on economic investment (and its evolution). But their
measurement of the yield from scholastic investment
takes account only of monetary investments and profits or
those directly convertible into money, such as the cost of
schooling and the case equivalent of time devoted to
study; they are unable to explain the different proportions
of their resources which different agents or different
social class allocate to economic investment and cultural
investment because they fail to take systematic account of
the structure of the differential chances of profit which
the various markets offer these agents or classes as a
function of the volume and the composition of their
assets.” (1987[1979], pp. 243-44; see also Bourdieu,
Boltanski and St-Martin 1973).
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fruitful, many aspects of the framework
remain undertheorized, and the framework
presents methodological flaws and conceptual
gaps. We have attempted to isolate some of
the gaps pertaining to power for instance. We
have also built on the original theory by
disentangling the concept of cultural capital,
and proposing a less encompassing definition
which focuses on cultural and social exclusion. We now look at changes that the
concept has undergone in being imported to
the U.S.
The concept of cultural capital has spurred
considerable theoretical interest in America,
resulting in several empirical studies. Work
has focused almost exclusively on educational
institutions, the schooling of elites, and the
relation between home and school.l2 A few
examples provide a glimpse of the recent
developments: in a 1982 study using survey
data, DiMaggio (1982) found that levels of
cultural capital influenced grades for high
school students. In a later study, DiMaggio
and Mohr (1985) found that cultural capital
also influenced higher education attendance
and completion as well as marital selection
patterns. Studies of boarding schools examined the role of cultural capital in the
curriculum (Cookson and Persell 1985a;
1985b; Persell and Cookson 1985). Lareau
(1987; forthcoming) argued that differences in
family life linked to social class (e.g., social
networks, role segregation) become a form of
cultural capital, structuring family-school
relationships for first grade children. Dubin
(1986) suggested that representations of
blacks in popular culture are a form of
cultural capital used in the imposition of
symbolic violence. Among the studies not
concerned with educational or social reproduction, Collins has drawn on the concept of
cultural capital in his discussion of the
modem stratification structure (1979), his
theory of interaction ritual chains (1981 a;
1985), and his analysis of creativity in
intellectual careers (1987). Lamont (1986;
12 This section ignores an important literature on social
and cultural reproduction (e.g., Anyon 1981; Arnot and
Whitty 1982; Bowers 1980; Bullivant 1982: Connell et
al. 1982; Mickelson 1987; Oakes 1985; Taylor 1984;
Watkins 1984; and Willis 1981).
1987b) has explained variations in political
attitudes within the new middle class by
variations in the degree of dependence on
profit-making and the utility for profit-making
of workers’ cultural capital.
Not all researchers have found empirical
support for Bourdieu’s model of cultural
reproduction: Robinson and Garnier (1985)
reported that Bourdieu greatly overstates the
influence of education on class reproduction
in France. They also noted that the influence
is mediated in important ways by gender.
Similarly, Blau (1986a; 1986b) found support
for the independence of economic capital
from cultural and academic capital in patterns
of cultural tastes. Other analyzing patterns of
cultural choices found that variables other
than class were better predictors of preferences in cultural consumption in the U.S.,
notably education, age and gender (Greenberg
and Frank 1983).
1. Where has power gone?
In general, American researchers have abstracted the concept of cultural capital from
the micro-political framework in which it was
originally embedded. From a tool for studying the process of class reproduction, the
concept became a tool for examining the
process of status attainment. For instance,
DiMaggio and colleagues in their important
work have examined the effect of cultural
capital in determining students’ grades, and in
influencing educational attainment and marital selection (DiMaggio 1982; DiMaggio and
Mohr 1985). The definition of cultural capital
used in this research was narrower than
Bourdieu’s as it was not concerned with
symbolic domination or with cultural exclusion in micro-settings.
Other American researchers have addressed
the issue of symbolic domination: Gouldner
(1979) and Martin and Szelenyi (1987) have
done so at length. They defined symbolic
domination within a Marxist perspective,
focusing on the place of domination within
the relations of production. Martin and
Szelenyi understood cultural capital as theoretical knowledge, symbolic mastery or intellectual work. They focused on the relations of
domination between theoretical mastery/practical mastery and intellectual/manual work.
Gouldner (1979), on the other hand, defined
cultural capital as education producing economic profit. He studied whether the associa160
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tion between higher income and education is
due to the higher productivity of the educated,
or to their acculturation into the middle class.
The American narrowing of the concept of
cultural capital is not problematic if the
distinctive features of this concept are preserved. As shown in the last section, the
micro-political focus is one of the crucial
dimensions of cultural capital, as illustrated
by Bourdieu’s complex analysis of cultural
and social exclusion, a form of micro-politics
“par excellence”. It also constitutes one of the
main differences between Bourdieu’s contribution and Veblen’s work on conspicuous
consumption. Whereas Veblen also talks
about status symbols and their “invidious”
(i.e., relational) nature, the cultivation of
aesthetic distance, the role of the family in
transmitting culture, and the importance of
time in “cultural accumulation,” Bourdieu
(1985a) significantly builds on Veblen’s
contribution-without acknowledging itwhen he analyzes symbolic conflicts for the
definition of standards of evaluation (cf., his
analysis of fields in 1985a; 1985b). We
believe that the micro-political dimension
should be preserved in the American study of
cultural capital by examining more closely
cultural and social exclusion; the latter is a
crucial topic for understanding cross-national
differences in how stratification structures are
reproduced and changed.
The relative absence of interest in the
micro-political facet of cultural capital in the
U.S. literature parallels the traditional resistance of American sociologists to deal with
exclusion as a form of power relations; they
tend to conceive it as an unintended consequences of action, and to understand power as
involving coercion (Wrong 1979; for the
opposite and, we believe, still marginal view,
cf. Lukes 1974). This trait of the literature is
likely to be related to the fact that Americans
do have a less encompassing conception of
power relations than the French do (on power
relations in French society, cf., Crozier 1964;
Shonfeld 1976).
Now that DiMaggio and others have been
overall very successful in showing the effects
of family background and cultural capital on
marital, status and educational attainment, we
need to step back and reflect on the categories
of analysis used in this research. The goal
here is to make the concept of cultural capital
less bound to the French context in which it
was developed, and more adequate for
analyzing American society. This requires
considering a number of theoretical and
empirical issues, and more specifically 1) the
relevance of the concept of legitimate culture
in the U.S.; 2) the distinctive American
repertoire of high status cultural signals; and
3) how cultural capital is turned into profits in
2. Is there cultural capital in the U.S.?
Important features of American society, such
as high social and geographical mobility,
strong cultural regionalism, ethnic and racial
diversity, political decentralization and relatively weak high culture traditions suggest
that culture is not as highly classdifferentiated in the U.S. as it is in France.
Indeed, American research suggests that class
culture are weakly defined in the U.S. (Davis
1982); that ethnic and racial minorities
reinterpret mainstream culture into their own
original culture (Horowitz 1983; Liebow
1967); that high culture is being debased by
commercialization (Horowitz 1987); that the
highly educated consume mass culture, but
also have a wider range of cultural preferences which distinguishes them from other
groups (DiMaggio and Mohr 1985; DiMaggio
1987; Hughes and Peterson 1983, Robinson
and Garnier 1985). Does this mean that
America has an undifferentiated mass culture
where cultural exclusion is infrequent, and
that high status signals are purely individually
defined and not institutionalized? It is unlikely, especially given the important cultural
influence of the mass media.
However, a consensus of high status
cultural signals could very well be less stable
in the U.S. than it is in France, for the public
for various types of cultural goods changes
rapidly, e.g., country music went from being
rural music to working class music after
WWII (Peterson and DiMaggio 1975; for an
empirical assessment of the level of consensus in the U.S. cf. DiMaggio and Ostrower
1987; no comparative data is available at this
point). Frequent cultural innovation, as well
as transgressions between cultural genres and
styles (e.g., Californian cuisine, winecoolers, the Boston Pops) probably constantly
redefine hierarchies of signals. Race, and to a
lesser extent, ethnicity, would also have a
negative effect on the cultural consensus.
Consequently, symbolic boundaries between
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“legitimate” and “illegitimate” cultures are
likely to be weaker.
The permeability of symbolic boundariesor the existence of a legitimate culture-can
be identified by documenting struggles around
these boundaries between members of lifestyle clusters, which is a most urgent task for
evaluating the usefulness of the notion of
cultural capital for studying American society. Boundaries exist only if they are
“repeatedly tested by persons on the fringes
of the group and repeatedly defended by
persons chosen to represent the group’s inner
morality.” (Erikson 1966, p. 23). Therefore,
cultural laissez-faire, or infrequent direct
cultural exclusion based on a random land
variable set of criteria, would be indicators of
an ill-defined and weakly differentiated legitimate culture.
We believe that the “class racism” (or
cultural intolerance) described in Distinction
is more frequent in France than, let’s say, in
the American Midwest, which would reflect
1) the existence of a less strongly differentiated legitimate culture; and 2) a greater
autonomy of lower class high status cultural
signals from middle class ones. But this issue
needs to be empirically explored.’3 The
problem of stability of cultural boundaries
goes unmentioned in Bourdieu’s work. This
is one area in which researchers could expand
on the French work in a theoretically fruitful
3. Documenting American forms
of cultural capital
We have seen that, as research on cultural
capital has spread, definitions of the concept
have multiplied. On the whole, however,
studies have followed Bourdieu and paid
special attention to “high culture” in pointing
out the items that make up the legitimate
culture. Most notably, DiMaggio and colleagues operationalized cultural capital as
knowledge of classical music and participation in the fine arts (DiMaggio 1982;
DiMaggio and Useem 1978; 1982-cf., also
13 One of the few researchers working on the problem
of cross-national differences in the influence of cultural
selection on the stratification system is Richard Munch
(1988). Also, Ganzeboom (1986) found that cultural
socialization affects status attainment in a similar way in
the U.S., the Netherlands and Hungary, which suggests
that cultural and social selection functions similarly in
these three national settings.
Cookson and Persell 1985a; 1985b). Although this choice has often been a wise
choice given the data available’4, no one has
yet empirically tested if participation in high
culture events is an adequate indicator of
cultural capital in the U.S. Firsthand experience with American culture-especially outside the East Coast-could cast doubt on the
centrality of high culture participation as a
basis for social and cultural selection.
Documenting the socially and historically
specific forms of American cultural capital is
now an urgent empirical task. At this point,
much of our knowledge concerning high
status cultural signals is located in “how to”
books which spell out in detail the proper
symbols and behaviors that assist occupational success, including clothing, jewelry,
conversation styles, gift giving, alcohol
consumption, dinner party etiquette, leisure
time activities, and community service. Biographies of upwardly mobile individuals which
reveal how they changed their dress, speech,
household furnishings, and dietary patterns to
fit in their new milieux also provide valuable
information scattered in bits and pieces.
In order to systematically document the
American forms of cultural capital in America, one could identify clusters of people who
share similar repertoires of institutionalized
signals by interviewing managers, professionals and entrepreneurs on their preferences and
lifestyles-the latter being seen as ideal by
Americans (Coleman and Rainwater (1978).15
The respective weight of various items in the
legitimate culture-a topic unexplored by
American and French researchers alike14 DiMaggio (1982, p. 191) states: “While it would be
preferable to ground these measures in observed cultures
of dominant status groups, in the absence of such a
rigorous data base, high cultural measures represent the
best alternative for several reasons.” He also proposes
(p. 199) that “An ideal data set for our purposes would
contain measures of cultural capital grounded in research
on adult elites in a single community; objective measures
of grades, standardized by school; data on teachers’
evaluations of students’ characters and aptitudes; and
observationally grounded measures of students’ interaction style, both linguistic and nonverbal.”
15 This culture has been almost completely neglected
by students of American culture who have focused on the
upper class culture (Baltzell 1964; Domhoff 1974), the
middle class at large (Bellah et al. 1985; Kanter 1977;
Mills 1953; Varennes 1977), and the working class and
the underclass cultures (Garson 1977; Liebow 1967;
Rubin 1976; Sennett and Cobb 1973). It should be noted
that Wuthnow (1987, chap. 3) offers interesting insights
on how to study symbolic boundaries.
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should be analyzed while documenting how
people evaluate status. This can be done by
comparing the importance attached to various
types of cultural preferences-e.g., knowledge of high culture in contrast with other
types of signals, such as familiarity with
sports, owning guns and horses, belonging to
health clubs, churches, and country clubs,
having environmental concerns, sending one’s
children to private schools, and belonging to
ethnic or historic associations. This would
allow identifying clusters of individuals who
share specific tastes, and discovering which
clusters are predominant (e.g., “pointyheaded high brow liberals on bicycle” vs
“God-fearing materialist entrepreneurs”) in
various types of occupations and regions.
The weight of items of legitimate culture
can also be analyzed by looking at the
importance attached to purchasable signals in
contrast to culturally acquired ones. Firsthand
cross-cultural experience suggests that in the
U.S., in contrast to France, access to goods
(e.g., having a wine cellar, or buying
expensive biking or skiing equipment) is
more important than modalities of consumption (i.e., the wine consumption examples
cited below, manners, dressing code), or
connoisseurship, which are likely to be less
nuanced and elaborate; fewer valued signals
are likely to be inexpensive (e.g., reading
Sartre in contrast to buying “yuppy” paraphernalia). This trait might be becoming more
pronounced, as exemplified by the recent
rapid diffusion of the expensive yuppy
culture, and the simultaneous decline of
cultural literacy.
Based on studies of French images of
American life, we can predict that American
legitimate culture is less related to knowledge
of the Western humanist culture, is more
technically oriented (with an emphasis on
scientific or computer information), and more
materialistic than the French legitimate culture depicted in Distinction (Wylie and
Henriquez 1982; on consumption in the U.S.
cf., also Sobel 1983, Zablocki and Kanter
1976). Valued attitudes and personal styles
are also likely to be different: rather than the
aloofness, originality, non-profit orientation,
brilliance, and off-handedness valued in the
French context-according to Bourdieu
(1984[1979])-some evidence suggests that
aggressiveness, competence, entrepreneurship, self-reliance, self-directiveness,
“problem-solving activism,” and adaptability
are desirable personal styles in the American
context (Katchadourian and Boli 1985; cf.
also Bellah et al. 1985; Kerckhoff 1972;
Kohn and Schooler 1983; Varennes 1977).
While Bellah et al. (1985) were concerned
with some of these values, they did not
systematically document the American repertoire of high status cultural signals, and were
more interested in how people make sense of
their lives and their self.
4. Turning capital into profits
As noted earlier, one of the strengths of the
concept of cultural capital is that it leaves
room for individual biographies by taking into
consideration variations in how individuals
use their cultural capital. The day-to-day
processes and micro-level interactions in
which individuals activate their cultural capital to gain access to social settings or attain
desired social results-i.e., the study of
cultural reproduction in action-is an interesting topic still neglected by American and
French researchers alike (besides Heath
1982).16 These processes and interactions
could be studied in employment and school
1) Studies in stratification and social
mobility are often quite vague about the
cultural skills workers demonstrate in employment settings and their influence on their
occupational prospects. In her study of
managers, Kanter (1977) touches on related
issues: she argues that the indeterminacy of
managers’ work fosters an organization emphasis on social homogeneity, that management relies on indicators of social conformity,
and that the behavior of managers outside of
the office, in evening get-togethers and
weekend outings, contributes to managers’
chances for occupational success. Some of
these events require managers to demonstrate
cultural competencies (e.g., playing golf,
giving dinner parties) and signs of cultural
membership. Other studies (Deal and Ken16 This program would also produce a more sophisticated understanding of the link between macro structure
and interaction. For discussions of the importance of
linking the micro and micro levels of analysis see
Alexander (1987); Collins (1981b; 1981c); Giddens
(1984); and Knorr-Cetina and Cicourel (1981). For
examples of studies of micro-level social interaction,
particularly in schools, see Cazden et al. (1972);
Erickson and Shultz (1982); Erickson and Mohatt (1982);
Heath (1982; 1983); and Mehan et al. (1986).
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nedy 1982; Packard 1962) also provide
indications that workers’ proficiency in cultural rituals can influence their occupational
futures, but they don’t provide a conceptual
framework that would address these issues in
a theoretically satisfying way. The concept of
cultural capital could provide a sound theoretical framework to study this topic.
2) This line of research can also provide a
conceptual framework for the increasing
number of school ethnographies which show
important class differences in school interaction. These ethnographies have produced
impressive documentation of the routines of
classroom interaction, but do not make
linkages between these patterns and the larger
social structure (Deyhle 1986; Erickson and
Mohatt 1982; Erickson and Shultz 1982;
Heath 1982; 1983; Wilcox 1982). Along with
studies of language interaction, they can also
offer a fruitful avenue for exploring the
day-to-day processes and micro-level interactions in which individuals activate their
cultural capital to gain access to social
settings or attain desired social results. These
are likely to differ considerably crossnationally, especially given French and American differences in organizational and academic culture (for instance Clark 1978;
Crozier 1964; Lammers and Hickson 1979;
Laurent 1983; Rose 1985).
This paper pursued several interrelated goals.
It systematized Bourdieu and Passeron’s work
by specifying the theoretical roles cultural
capital plays in their model, and the various
types of high status signals the authors are
concerned with. In the second section, we
looked at the American literature on cultural
capital to compare it with the original work,
and again point out theoretical gaps and
untested theoretical assumptions. We also
described a research agenda to decouple the
concept from the French context in which it
has been developed.
Confusion, some of it creative, has dominated discussions of cultural capital. To solve
this problem, we proposed to define cultural
capital as widely shared, legitimate culture
made up of high status cultural signals
(attitudes, preferences, behaviors, and goods)
used in direct or indirect social and cultural
We differentiated Bourdieu’s work from
others concerned with status attribution. We
suggested that Bourdieu differs from Weber
most importantly in that he provides a more
sophisticated conception of exclusion in part,
because he is concerned with indirect forms
of exclusion as well. Bourdieu’s theory
differs from Veblen’s in that he thinks that
status signals are mostly sent unconsciously,
via the habitus, or unintentionally, because of
the classificatory effects of cultural codes.
Bourdieu and Passeron’s work improves on
others by providing a more structural theory
of discrimination in school settings, and a
more dynamic approach to social reproduction which leaves room for agency. It also
takes a more structural view at status
attribution as it looks at institutionalized
signals. Simultaneously, the relational method
of identification of cultural capital presents
important operationalization problems, which
result in contested conclusions concerning the
subordinate nature of lower class culture.
Furthermore, many aspects of the framework
remain undertheorized, particularly concerning the theory of power underlying the work.
In order to build on the important available
American work, and to make cultural capital
less bound to the French context in which it
was developed, we proposed to step back and
1) assess the relevance of cultural capital in
the U.S.; 2) document the American repertoire of high status cultural signals; and 3)
analyze how capital is turned into profits in
American organizations and schools. This
could be done by analyzing 1) conflicts
around symbolic boundaries; 2) the weight of
various items in the legitimate culture (e.g.,
high culture vs sport connoisseurship, purchasable vs non-purchasable signals); and 3) the
day-to-day process and micro-level interactions where individuals activate their cultural
capital to gain access to social settings or
attain desired social results.
While Weber was mostly concerned with
status groups, and Bourdieu, with differentiated class cultures and their relationship to the
legitimate culture or cultural capital, we are
reaching the conclusion that more attention
should be given to the institutionalized
repertoire of high status cultural signals and
to conflicts around symbolic boundaries. Our
program would avoid the pitfalls of the
original framework, particularly the confusion concerning multiple functions of cultural
capital, and the unsupported assumptions
relative to the relational nature of the cultural
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system and the lack of autonomy of dominated culture. It would also preserve some of
the advantages of the original framework, by
retaining Bourdieu and Passeron’s sophisticated analysis of direct and indirect exclusion, which largely accounts for the original
success of their theory.
Cultural capital can improve our understanding of the way in which social origin provides
advantages in social selection. In particular,
by focusing on the “investment” practices, it
stands to yield a more active and dynamic
model of social reality. Further work on
cultural capital, which unravels cultural
reproduction while highlighting individual
strategies, stands to make an important
contribution to research on culture, power,
and social stratification.
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