Social and cultural capital are types of capital explored in education, and particularly in relation to Bourdieu’s forms of capital.
Social capital is used to explain the value of a person’s acquired social contacts and relationships. It includes people like your friend groups, family, and organizational contacts who you could rely on for support.
Cultural capital, on the other hand, explains a person’s acquired knowledge, skills and behaviors that have cultural value. It includes your accent, college degree, fashion sense, and other factors that can show your ability to integrate into your culture.
Social vs Cultural Capital in Sociology
What is Social Capital?
In the simplest terms, social capital is the value we derive from our relationships with other members of society.
For instance, an old boys’ network, or a university fraternity or sorority are social capital as they can be used for the personal or professional advancement of an individual.
In more complex terms, social capital however is more than just leveraging your immediate network for personal gain.
Thinkers such as Francis Fukuyma and Alex de Tocueville gave a much broader definition of social capital, linking it with participation in the public affairs by the members of a society, trust in public institutions, and ultimately with the efficient functioning of a democratic society itself.
Like other forms of capital, social capital is capable of being accumulated – in this case through social interactions – and can be exchanged for other valuable resources.
- Your friend groups
- Your mentors
- Your old bosses who could act as references
- Your parents’ friends who can help you out
- Your contacts in the government
Related: Three Types of Social Capital
What is Cultural Capital?
Cultural capital consists of intangible assets that act as a currency in a social setting that values cultural objects.
For instance, mastery over one or more languages, knowledge of art and literature, educational achievements, etc. are all types of cultural capital.
Even though cultural capital, unlike economic capital, is not always inherited, it can be passively acquired (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).
For instance, children growing up in an upper-class household will inherit the mannerisms, speech, ways of conduct, and comportment that are the norm in their social circle.
These in turn act as a form of capital in social settings where the ability to hold an engaging conversation on arcane topics, or to be exquisitely attired, are valued attributes.
- Your accent
- The way you dress
- Your hobbies
- The sports you play
- The university you went to
- The languages you speak
Related: Three Types of Cultural Capital
What are the Differences Between Social and Cultural Capital?
Even though social and cultural capital sound like similar phenomena, there are major differences between the two.
1. Social Capital is about Tangible Personal Relationships
Social capital is rooted in direct social relations between people, whereas cultural capital derives its value from having a set of cultural skills more broadly.
2. Cultural Capital is More Directly Related to Economic Capital
Cultural capital has a direct relation with economic capital, in the sense that cultural objects are often tied to socio-economic class.
For instance, knowledge of art, theater, the opera, fine foods, expensive dressing – all objects of high culture – are most often the preserve of the well-heeled in society. While the working and rural classes might possess their own subaltern culture in the form of art and music, this does not usually possess the same value as the high culture of the elite.
Social capital on the other hand does not display such an intimate relationship with economic capital. Networks exist at all levels in a society, and members of such networks can leverage their position within these networks to achieve their goals.
4. Cultural Capital is a Newer Sociological Term
The term cultural capital was coined only in the 1970s, whereas social capital has been understood for at least as late as the 19th century, although both phenomena have existed for as long as human society itself.
What are the Similarities Between Social and Cultural Capital?
Social and cultural capital are both indicators of your ability to navigate through life, and in particular, social situations.
While social capital is about your direct and enduring relationships with people, cultural capital is still required to navigate a social situation.
For example, your knowledge of mannerisms and cultural taboos in a society is cultural capital that you put to use in a social situation to help you get the job, or even, make friends.
Similarly, if you have social capital (e.g a friend network), you’ll be able to rely on them to introduce you to new people and get into social gatherings that you otherwise might not have been able to get access to.
2. Both can be Translated into Different Forms of Capital
According to Bourdieu, all forms of capital can be translated and leveraged to achieve other forms of capital.
For example, you can use the people you know (social capital) to introduce you to someone who will give you a job (to grow your economic capital).
Similarly, people with a native-born accent (high cultural capital) will face less discrimination than immigrants who have non-native accents (lower cultural capital). As a result, you might find it easier to make friends (social capital) or get a job (economic capital).
3. Both Enable Social Status, Power, and Mobility
Similarly, the degree to which you hold each form of capital (whether you have high or low social capital and cultural capital) will impact your ability to obtain social status and power.
For example, if you have a wide range of friends, people will see you as having higher social status than someone with no friends.
Similarly, if you are a ‘native’ or even an ‘upper-class elite’ due to your embodied cultural capital, you’re more likely to get into clubs, obtain access to powerful people, and generally exercise power in society.
A typical example of the power that comes with cultural capital is that people who are immigrants are often treated more harshly by police than people who are locals, as the locals are culturally similar to the police officers.
The same goes for social capital: if you have friends in the police force, chances are they won’t arrest you or might even pull some strings to get you out of trouble.
4. Both can be Obtained through Institutional Affiliation
If you are a member of an institution, you can find it easier to get both cultural and social capital.
For example, your attendance at Harvard University would give you a great deal of cultural capital (people will be impressed by your affiliation with an elite cultural institution).
But, it will also offer you social capital because you’ll have access to top academics, professors, and future leaders, who you could contact later in your life to give you help in your career.
Venn Diagram of Similarities and Differences
|Unique Features of Social Capital
|Unique Features of Cultural Capital
|1. Social capital refers to your social contacts who you could rely on.
2. Examples include friend groups, club memberships, previous bosses who can be references.
|1. Both help you navigate social interactions.
2. Both can be translated into different forms of capital.
3. Both can be obtained through institutional affiliation.
4. Both enable social mobility.
|1. Cultural capital refers to your accumulated cultural knowledge, skills, and behaviors that demonstrate how well you fit into a cultural group.
2. Examples include your accent, manners, hobbies, tastes in food, and education level.
What are the Other forms of Capital?
There are many forms of capital in sociological thought, including social, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, intellectual, symbolic, political, and ecological capital.
In sociology classes, we tend to focus on the three forms of capital defined by Piere Bourdieu in his essay “The Forms of Capital” (1985) and his follow-up book The State Nobility: Élite Schools in the Field of Power (1996).
Bourdieu’s three forms of capital are:
- Social: Your relationships and connections in society.
- Cultural: Your cultural knowledge, skills, and behaviors such as your accent, knowledge of national sports history, your tastes, and your endowed institutional recognition (e.g. university degrees).
- Economic: Your money and other liquefiable assets, such as your stocks, houses, and investment properties.
I explain each of these, plus symbolic capital, here:
Social and cultural capital are both forms of capital from Bourdieu’s theory of the forms of capital. They are the two that appear most common, but the differences can be distilled down to the difference between society (actual people) and culture (behaviors and attitudes).
Borjas G.J. (1986) The self-employment experience of immigrants. Journal of Human Resources 21(4),485–506. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/145764
Bourdieu, P. (1985). The Forms of Capital. In J. G. Richardson (ed). Handbook for Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. (pp. 241–58). London: Sage.
Bourdieu, P. (1996). The State Nobility: Élite Schools in the Field of Power. London: Sage.
Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.C. (1990) Reproduction in education, society and culture. London: Sage.
Carruthers, Bruce G., & Espeland, W.N. (1991) Accounting for rationality: Double-Entry bookkeeping and the rhetoric of economic rationality. American Journal of Sociology 97(1), 31–69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2781637.
Charles, D. (November, 2017) From cattle to capital: How agriculture bred inequality NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/11/15/564376795/from-cattle-to-capital-how-agriculture-bred-ancient-inequality
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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]