Cultural capital involves the cultural aptitudes of an individual or group. It comprises a person’s knowledge, behaviors, and skills that demonstrate their cultural competence.
For example, a person’s accent can demonstrate whether or not they’re a native of a culture.
Similarly, your ability to navigate cultural taboos, discuss popular sports, and knowledge of culturally important music, can help you to demonstrate that you have high cultural capital within a culture.
Cultural capital can be embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. Examples of various different types of cultural capital are outlined below.
Examples of Cultural Capital
1. High-Brow Culture
High-brow culture (also known as high culture) is the culture of the elite in any society. Its opposite is called low culture.
It usually includes tastes in classical music, fine wines, literature, and other such pursuits commonly perceived as being markers of ‘sophistication.’
Bourdieu in his original works named high-brow culture as a classic manifestation of high cultural capital.
According to Bourdieu, high-brow culture is defined by those who possess the most non-financial assets capable of providing upward mobility, such as education.
Other classes are forced to accept as definitive the judgment of this dominating class on what constitutes high-brow culture.
A person’s accent is an example of embodied cultural capital. You can have a native accent that makes you appear to fit in within a culture; or, an accent that portrays you as an ‘other’.
People with native accents are less likely to face discrimination as they can fit into the dominant culture. Thus, an accent can function as cultural capital that can advantage you in job interviews or even simple social situations.
Within a society, you can have a high-class or low-class dialect, which is a regional accent.
For instance, in England, traditional working-class accents are termed Cockney, whereas the upper classes are known to speak with an accent labeled RP (received pronunciation).
Similarly, American English has accents such as the Boston accent, the Texan drawl, hillbilly accent, etc., each of which is associated with certain class categories.
Generally, a person whose accent appears working-class may find it harder to gain employment because a company doesn’t want to appear to be working-class if they want to appeal to customers with more money.
Whiteness and white privilege in a multiethnic society are forms of cultural capital.
For instance, in the United States, WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) is an acronym that denotes a class of American elites that have dominated the country’s culture, politics, and business from its birth.
WASP culture extends beyond the biological category of race, setting the standards of high-brow culture for other Americans.
The Lebanese-Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage (1998) made similar observations about Australian society in his work White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society.
According to Hage, whiteness serves as a form of cultural capital enabling one racial group to define a national culture for everyone else.
5. Legacy Admissions
Legacy admissions or legacy preferences are a classic example of institutionalized cultural capital. These are a system of preferential admissions granted by elite universities to children of their alumni.
According to a recent study, over 33% of freshman admissions at Harvard University were legacy preferences (Martin & Blumberg, 2019).
Most Ivy League universities in the United States have between 10-15% of their seats reserved for legacy admissions, with some universities even providing scholarships and tuition-fee waivers to legacy admissions.
See More: Legacy Examples
6. Sartorial Sense
Sartorial senses, or the ways people dress, have been linked to professional success and increased earnings.
A longitudinal study by the University of Chicago revealed that people who were deemed to dress “attractively” earned 20% more than others throughout their careers (Wong & Penner, 2016).
Fine dressing and grooming, like all matters of taste and aesthetics, are forms of cultural capital that individuals acquire from their habitus.
Within some cultures, you would also need to dress in traditional cultural attire in order to leverage your cultural capital (e.g. wearing a Shalwar kameez suit in Pakistan).
7. Silverware Etiquette
Not knowing which hand to hold your fork with, or how to arrange your cutlery before and after eating can be a major social handicap in formal settings.
It can be an even bigger handicap in multicultural settings, for in most of the eastern hemisphere, food is consumed without the use of cutlery, using only one’s hands, and while being seated on the floor.
This latter style of eating might be perceived as disagreeable or even gross in a formal setting, like a business meeting.
It is for this reason that various finishing and soft-skills courses all over the world teach proper silverware etiquettes as part of their business education curriculum, irrespective of the learner’s native customs.
Thus silverware etiquette is a form of cultural capital that carries value and is embedded in power relations, being a consequence of European colonial and post-colonial influence over the world.
Like with other instances of cultural capital, the dominant group defines the norms of high-culture while the subordinate groups follow.
8. An Elite University Degree
Institutions can also endow people with cultural capital, such as in the case of obtaining an elite university degree.
To have a degree from an Ivy League college in your hand shows that an elite institution, which has its own cultural capital, has endorsed you.
In essence, the elite university has transferred some of its capital to you through its endorsement. This, in turn, can help you to impress future employers when seeking a job.
9. Ability to Discuss Culturally Important Sports
Knowledge of sporting culture helps people to demonstrate that they have an intimate knowledge of a culture.
Generally, to fit into the dominant cultural group, you would want to have deep knowledge of higher-class sports like polo, tennis, and golf. With knowledge of the history and intimacies of these sports, you can demonstrate that you belong within the upper classes.
But among politicians, who want to appeal to the masses, it’s desirable to have knowledge of sports like football and baseball in order to demonstrate that you’re an average Joe who fits into the regular culture of society.
10. Sports Choice
To become a member of the elite with high cultural capital, you would want to embrace sports of the elite such as polo, tennis, and golf.
Golf, in particular, is a sport that can help a person develop cultural, social, and economic capital.
Firstly, you would need to know about golf and how to play it. This might get you an invite to play with elite businesspeople or politicians which can develop your social capital. This, in turn, might help you to secure a business deal that is discussed on the ninth hole.
11. Liberal Elitism
In recent decades, resentment of the middle and working classes of the ‘liberal elite’ has shown a divide between those within high culture and low culture.
The liberal elite is seen as people who are out of touch, indulgent, and snobs.
However, within the ranks of the liberal elite, a great deal of power can be amassed. They can influence large business policies due to their ownership of those businesses and have access to politicians. They thus have high social status among the elite classes.
12. Listening to High Culture Music
Pop, rock, and country music might be seen as low or popular culture. They are consumed by the masses and, to those trained in music, often seen as unsophisticated.
By contrast, listening to classical and operatic music is seen as a sign of high culture. A person with deep and intimate knowledge of classical and operatic music, therefore, has high cultural capital and can use that when engaging in conversation with elites in order to demonstrate cultural competency.
13. Ownership of Art
Objectified capital is a concept by Bourdieu that highlights how we can produce or purchase artistic works that demonstrate cultural competency.
For example, owning an artwork that has deep cultural significance can be an object that demonstrates your taste and style.
A talented artist can also turn their cultural competency in their mind into an artwork that they can then sell. Here, the idea is that embodied cultural capital is turned into objectified cultural capital in order to be sold, which turns it into economic capital.
14. Brand Name Clothing
Wearing elite brands of clothing, such as Chanel, Gucci, or Louis Vuitton, is a display of both economic and cultural capital.
It is a display of economic capital because the clothing is expensive and requires significant assets to own.
But it is also a display of cultural capital because you don’t only have the money for expensive clothing, but you’re showing you have taste and knowledge of the revered brands within the culture.
15. Attending the Theater
While the masses tend to go to the movie theater, elites attend the live theater.
This highbrow activity is enjoyed by the elites because they get a live showing by the actors. It feels more personalized, as if people have acted out the play just for them and no one else.
Theater shows are also often new takes on old stories from Shakespeare or other well-regarded playwrights, rather than the lowbrow superhero movies of today.
16. Having a Liberal Arts Degree
While most people go to university to get a good job, the elites have the luxury of getting a degree for the sake of learning.
They can do a degree in the humanities, philosophy, fine arts, or another pursuit that is generally not geared toward workforce readiness. This is a luxury afforded only to the wealthy.
17. Skills with Information Technology
Access to technology has become a great differentiator in the 21st century.
The digital divide separates those who have the means to access information and communication technology, and all that it enables, and those who don’t.
According to research by Emmison and Frow (1998), information technology is increasingly assuming the form of cultural capital.
In other words, children who are born in and raised in an environment where they are exposed to digital technology earlier in life become far better equipped to succeed professionally than those who are not born in such an environment.
Those children with access to technology develop intuitive abilities to navigate it, while those who don’t have access feel like fish out of water, not knowing how to communicate with and use technology in quite the same way.
Types: Embodied and Objectified
Memes are viral images and jokes spread throughout the internet. In all likelihood, you have used them frequently while communicating with friends, colleagues, and strangers on the internet.
Nissenbaum & Shifman (2017) in a study of internet forums propose that memes are increasingly taking the form of cultural capital because of 3 forms of value inherent in them – as stores of subcultural knowledge, as symbols of equilibrium between convention and innovation, and finally, their use as potent weapons of satire in heated internet discussions.
19. Science Capital
Science capital is a concept derived from Bourdieu’s cultural capital by Louise Archer and colleagues at King’s College, London as part of the ASPIRES project.
The concept aims to track the educational and professional preferences of children who inherit a significant amount of science-related resources from their families and schoosl.
The ASPIRES research project is a longitudinal study that studied individuals aged between 10-23 years of age over a period of several years as they transitioned from childhood to the early phases of their professional careers.
The study found that children who were brought up with scientific aptitudes, which is to say had parents or other adults already working in STEM fields, were much more likely to take up STEM fields for study and build their careers in it (Archer et al., 2015).
Origins of the Term
While economic and social capital have been theorized by sociologists for over 100 years, it was Pierre Bourdieu in the 1980s who introduced the concept of cultural capital.
For Bourdieu, cultural capital is a person’s cultural competence (Bourdieu, 1986). He believed that high cultural capital is associated with greater social and economic mobility because you can leverage it to get a job, make friends in high places, and avoid discrimination.
Generally, we see the dominant classes in a society as having high cultural capital whereas the lower classes have lower cultural capital.
Those with high cultural capital associated with the dominant classes might obtain access to powerful people and leverage that to achieve social status (e.g. you could run into them at the polo club, golf club, or opera).
However, were a person to try to embed themselves in working-class culture, then you’d need to have a sophisticated understanding of a unique form of working-class capital.
So, you can also have strong working-class cultural capital which may be desirable in some situations.
You’d need to embrace blue-collar behaviors. For example, you would need to drink working-class beers, listen to working-class music, and so on, allowing you to fit in with the working classes).
Related: Cultural vs Social Capital
There are examples of cultural capital all around us. They exist in the forms of objectified, embodied, and institutionalized cultural competencies and aptitudes that allow us to leverage social status, power, and advantage. With high cultural capital, you can achieve social mobility, and turn it into any of the other forms of capital such as social and economic.
Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). Science Capital: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending Bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the Arts. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 52 (7), 992-948. doi:10.1002/tea.21227
Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital in J. Richardson Handbook of sociology and research for the theory of education. (pp. 241-258) Greenwood.
Blumberg, E. & Martin, Y. (2019). Harvard’s freshman class is more than one-third legacy—here’s why that’s a problem. CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/07/harvards-freshman-class-is-more-than-one-third-legacy.html
Emmison, M., & Frow, J. (1998). Information technology as cultural capital. Australian Universities Review 1, 41-45. doi: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009640518635
Hage, G. (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Sydney: Routledge.
Nissenbaum, A., & Shifman, L. (2017). Internet memes as contested cultural capital: The case of 4chan’s /b/ board. New Media & Society, 19(4), 483–501. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444815609313
Wong, J.S. & Penner, A.M. (2016) Gender and the returns to attractiveness Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 44, 113-123. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rssm.2016.04.002
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]