Different people have different levels of cultural capital. Those with high cultural capital can navigate social situations more effectively than those without it.
In education, it’s often a leading indicator to show how likely someone is to succeed and get high scores.
The sociological concept of cultural capital was created by Piere Bourdieu. In this article, I’ll explore what it is, and provide examples in the context of education.
What is Cultural Capital in Education?
Cultural capital is one of four forms of capital in Bourdieu’s theory of capital. The four forms are:
- Cultural capital
- Social capital
- Economic capital
- Symbolic capital
High levels of each form of capital can help you to succeed in life. If you’ve got low capital in one of each of these categories, you will find yourself at a disadvantage in life.
Economic capital is the most simple: it means how much money you have. If you have more money, you can buy more things and be more comfortable in life.
Cultural capital refers to ability to understand the culture in which you live and go to school.
For example, the culture in North Korean schools is different to British schools. In North Korea, children generally are still expected to be quiet and repeat what the teacher says. So, a British child might struggle to understand the right way to behave if they went to a North Korean School. They don’t have the right cultural capital.
Think about your culture: it has certain things that we consider to be the culture’s ‘capital’:
- Your culture’s values
- Sports that your culture plays
- Jokes that are acceptable (and not acceptable) within a culture
- Slang, terms and sayings used in your culture but not others
If you understand these things, you have high cultural capital, and it’s easier for you to navigate cultural situations.
Usually, immigrant students will have less cultural capital than non-immigrant students.
Furthermore, because schools usually embrace middle-class cultural values, middle-class students usually have more cultural capital than working-class students.
Without cultural capital, you can struggle because:
- Teachers may misinterpret you as someone who is rude and label you a ‘bad student’.
- You may not understand what is expected of you.
- You may struggle to make friends.
- You may struggle to communicate (e.g. if English is your second language).
Many parts of cultural capital (like knowing slang words and how to greet people properly) are not explicitly taught to children. That’s why we sometimes call cultural capital the hidden curriculum of education. They learn it by growing up within a culture, not by actually being taught how to behave explicitly.
List of Examples of Cultural Capital
In Elementary (Primary) School
1. Knowing when to Raise your Hand
It may sound surprising, but some students get to school without knowing simple group rules like sitting down, raising hands, and waiting for the teacher’s permission before taking action.
These students are likely not familiar with these conventions because they didn’t learn them from their home.
Children of teachers, or children who have been to pre-school, often come to school with the highest levels of cultural capital. They’ve learned the ‘culture of school’ through their past experiences.
Meanwhile, children who are the only child in their family or who have not spent much time with other children don’t understand the cultural requirements at school. They don’t understand that you have to sit on the floor and listen to the teacher, raise your hand to ask questions, or ask permission to go to the bathroom.
They start with a disadvantage because they have to learn all these things!
2. Knowing how to Line Up and Knock Before Entering
If you go to a karate class after school, you might be expected to bow your head to the leader of the class. This is a special way to greet the leader in karate. I personally don’t know how to do it, so I’d have low cultural capital in a karate meet-up!
But in schools, we also have special ways to greet people. For example, a student is often asked to knock at the door and wait for the teacher to let them in. You may also be expected to line-up outside the classroom.
Some children have been taught how to line up outside before being allowed to come in. But, other families have taught their children to just wander into a room without knocking. Here, there is a cultural disconnect in the right ways to enter a room.
3. Looking a Teacher in the Eyes
In Western culture, looking someone in the eyes is usually a sign of respect because it shows that you are actively listening to them.
But in other cultures, looking someone in the eyes is often a sign of defiance. I remember teaching in an Indigenous school in Australia and the Indigenous children refused to look you in the eye because they thought it was rude.
So, if one of those children moved to the city and came into a classroom, the teacher may think they’re being rude for not looking anyone in the eye. There’s a cultural disconnect here, leading to conflict due to different levels of cultural capital in different situations.
4. Knowing when to Talk in Class
In 21st Century education, talking in class is increasingly more and more encouraged.
This is because we’re starting to understand that talking helps you to improve your understanding and communication skills. Listening to a range of other people also helps you broaden your knowledge.
But some children will talk and not listen. They will talk over the teacher and their peers and not give input to the other children in the class. And they don’t understand that this is not acceptable in school situations.
Other children will already know when to talk and how to communicate with other children. They might have learned these cultural skills because they have siblings or went to pre-school.
In High School
1. Dressing Like Everyone Else
Different cultural groups will have different dress codes. For some minority cultures, their chosen dress code conflicts with what is considered acceptable in a school.
I recall in high school back in a generally white Australian community in the early 2000s, a Muslim girl came to our school. She wanted to wear a hijab, which led to some long negotiation about wearing a hijab that was consistent with our school uniform.
In the end, her mother made her a hijab that matched the exact colors of our school uniform. While this was a well-negotiated solution that satisfied everyone, the very fact that there needed to be a negotiation around dress code showed that the school’s and girl’s cultural capital were mismatched.
2. Being able to Speak English Well
Many of us take speaking English for granted. We could go to school in Britain or America or Canada and communicate perfectly well. We’d have that baseline cultural capital to communicate.
But immigrant students from non-English speaking backgrounds don’t have this luck. They might have to strain to listen to and understand instructions in English. They might miss little jokes that the teacher makes or slang words that they don’t know yet.
This low cultural capital puts the immigrant student at a disadvantage.
3. Enjoyment of Books (vs. Movies or other Media)
Schools still tend to preference knowledge communicated via books than other media such as movies.
This may not appear to have a connection to culture until you look at working-class and middle-class cultures.
Working-class people have, traditionally, put greater value on verbal storytelling and physical activities than sitting down to read books.
So, students from a middle-class culture will (on balance) more likely come from homes with more books in them and will be more rehearsed in reading to find information. By contrast, a working-class student might be more inclined to learn through a physical activity or a conversation – which are two activities often overlooked in traditional classrooms.
In College and University
1. Having Siblings or Parents who went to College
Before you go to university, you will likely hear stories about it from parents, friends and siblings. They will tell you what it’s like to go to a seminar and a lecture. They might also be able to give you advice on how to succeed at university (where to sit in a lecture, how to prepare for class, how to take notes).
But for people who come from a family of tradespeople, you might not have anyone at home to show you what university is like. You will not know what to expect at all!
There is great benefit to having relatives who went to university because they can talk you through the cultural expectations of the institutions.
If you’re a first-generation university student, you might find that your cultural capital in a university setting is pretty low and you’ll need to pay attention to catch-up and learn the little hidden rules.
2. Knowing what to Expect of Professors
It seems strange, but a lot of students don’t know how to communicate with their professors. This is because learning is very different in university than it is in high school.
For example, professors expect you to try to do independent research before coming to talk to them. The professor is there as a consultant and guide, not to babysit you.
So with that in mind, some students feel nervous about when they’re allowed to talk to their professor. Can you send your professor an email? Can you approach them after class for help? Can you request a one-to-one tutorial session?
Students with high cultural capital in universities (for example, if it’s not their first degree) will be more confident about seeking help (and knowing when to seek help). But students with low cultural capital will feel more timid and not get the help they need.
3. Familiarity with Libraries (And Willingness to use Them)
This is a massive differentiating factor that I’ve noticed about my students.
Some students know how to use a library and make good use of it. They will race to the library and check-out all the best books for an upcoming exam or essay. They will have a spot in the library that they’ve decided is the best place study.
Other students whose family didn’t make the most of the local library, or who went to a school that didn’t instil a thorough understanding of the value of libraries, will not make use of the library, and be at a disadvantage as a result.
Ability to use and the habit of frequenting a library is therefore an example of cultural capital that can influence your educational experience.
4. Obtaining a Degree
Obtaining a degree gives you a certain level of cultural capital. When you walk into a job interview and show that you have a Bachelor’s degree, your employer will see it and remember that you have been trained by a respected institution.
And if you get that degree from a prestigious university, you’ll have even more cultural capital than if you got a certification than a local state college that’s not well-respected. So, even within ‘obtaining a degree’, some degrees carry with them more cultural capital than others.
As an example, if you got a degree from an Ivy League college such as Harvard or Yale, you’ll have more cultural capital than if you got a degree from Washington State University.
1. Knowing the School Catchment Areas for the Best Schools
Many countries and states require their children to go to the nearest public school to their home. Any child within a postal code will be sent to a certain school.
This has led to people ‘shopping’ for a good public school by moving suburbs. If you move across to another suburb, you can go to a better school.
But, parents need two things to be able to make the most of this: understanding and knowledge of where to live to get into the good school (cultural capital) and money to buy or rent in the desirable area (economic capital).
2. Understanding the Admissions Process to get Accepted into Good Schools
If you’re hoping to send your child to a private school, you might have to apply and go into the school for an interview. During the interview, you’re competing against other parents to get your children into the school.
Parents with high cultural capital will know what to say and how to say it in order to ‘win’ the spot for their children. They will know when to apply to the school to get the highest chance to get in. And they’ll be able to show that their child will be a good asset to the school.
Often, in situations like this, the parent with highest cultural capital will secure the place for their child.
3. Ability to find Schools with Values that Match their Own
If your cultural capital matches the dominant cultural capital in your society, you will be able to find a school for your child that matches your values. But if you have a specific religious background or belief system that’s different to the majority of society, you might struggle.
You may have to spend money to go to a private school or do homeschooling, which drains your personal resources.
So, if your culture is also the dominant culture in the society in which you live, it turns out that life’s a lot easier for you!
Cultural capital refers to all the small elements that make up the dominant culture in a society (values, beliefs, language, ways of speaking, ways of behaving, and so on). If your behavior, speech and values match those of the culture in which you life, you’ll have high cultural capital.
But for people whose culture isn’t the dominant culture in society, you often need to learn how to navigate the dominant culture in order to do well in school.
This theory can explain some of the factors that lead to success or failure within a school system.
It also reminds teachers that they need to be aware of their students’ levels of cultural capital. You can simultaneously respect and adjust to the cultural backgrounds of your students while also teaching them how to navigate the domain culture so they can succeed in life.
References and Further Reading
Clegg, S. (2011). Cultural capital and agency: connecting critique and curriculum in higher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32(1), 93-108.
Morris, E. (2005). “Tuck in that shirt!” Race, class, gender, and discipline in an urban school. Sociological Perspectives, 48(1): 25-48. Doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sop.2005.48.1.25
Pishghadam, R., & Zabihi, R. (2011). Parental education and social and cultural capital in academic achievement. International Journal of English Linguistics, 1(2), 50.
Reay, D. (2004). Education and cultural capital: The implications of changing trends in education policies. Cultural trends, 13(2), 73-86.
Sullivan, A. (2001). Cultural capital and educational attainment. Sociology, 35(4), 893-912.