In sociology, ‘capital’ is a term used to refer to a person or group’s accumulated status within a stratified society.
High amounts of capital indicate a person’s elevated social status and power in society, while low accumulated capital can indicate a person’s inability to achieve social mobility.
Capital in sociology has two essential features:
- It can be accumulated.
- Any form of capital can be converted to any other form.
Sociologists identify and study various forms of capital such as social, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, intellectual, symbolic, political, and ecological capital.
What are the Forms of Capital in Sociology?
- Economic Capital – In sociology, economic capital refers to a person’s wealth, including both cash on hand as well as their assets including stocks, investment properties, and the money in your home. The term is also extensively used in economics.
- Cultural Capital – Cultural capital, a term introduced by Pierre Bourdieu in 1977, refers to a person’s cultural competencies. Examples of cultural capital include your accent, how you dress, how you speak, your knowledge of taboos and manners, and so on. He further divided the term into three types of cultural capital (listed below).
- Embodied Cultural Capital – Embodied cultural capital is a subset of the broader concept of cultural capital. It refers to the cultural competencies passively learned through your upbringing. For example, your accent, table manners, and knowledge of how to speak to elders are all embodied forms.
- Objectified Cultural Capital – Objectified cultural capital is the works produced by a person that has perceived cultural value. The typical example of objectified capital is artwork. A person who can produce beautiful and meaningful artworks can “objectify” (i.e. turn into objects) their cultural knowledge and, then, trade it for money, to turn their cultural knowledge into economic capital.
- Institutionalized Cultural Capital – When culturally significant institutions formally recognize your skills, knowledge, or membership, we call it institutionalized cultural capital. For example, if you get a university degree from a prestigious university, the institution is endowing you with their approval by association, which can be very useful when going for a job.
- Social Capital – Social capital refers to the social networks and relationships that you have developed and can call upon to achieve social advantages or social mobility. An example of social capital is people in the Freemasons group who will often be able to use their contacts within the group to obtain prestigious jobs. Similarly, if you have a friend inside of an exclusive club, they may be able to gain entry for you, too. There are three types of social capital.
- Ethnic Capital – Ethnic capital refers to the advantages that accrue from belonging to a specific ethnic group. It is most commonly applied by sociologists studying migration. For instance, newly arrived immigrants to a country may receive support from members of their own ethnic community who are already settled in that country. (Borjas, 1992)
- Linguistic Capital – Linguistic capital is the value inherent in the mastery of linguistic skills. For instance, in most Third World countries of Asia and Africa, knowledge of English is a valuable asset that can translate to better job prospects and upward social and economic mobility.
- Intellectual Capital – Intellectual capital is the value that human knowledge, capabilities, and relationships bring to an organization. Due to its human component, it stands differentiated from structural and economic capital that organizations possess.
- Symbolic Capital – Symbolic capital is the value inherent in symbols or symbolic actions, most often taking the form of prestige or honor. For instance, popular athletes, decorated soldiers, or national heroes possess symbolic capital that enables them to command respect in their societies. To take another example, architectural styles of certain eras considered classical, such as Georgian, Victorian, or Renaissance, possess a symbolic capital which newer structures ( such as McMansions) attempt to capitalize on.
- Political Capital – Political capital is the sum total of relationships, leverage, and resources that can be mobilized to influence politics. Political capital may be invested in politicians, or their constituents, may take the form of reputation, goodwill, or influence.
- Natural Capital – Natural capital comprises the wealth of natural resources available to mankind, and which enable both human survival as well as human economic activity.
- Human Capital – Human capital is a term used to denote the economic value of an employee’s skills and capabilities. It can be enhanced by organizations by providing training and certifications to upskill their employees.
Related: Social vs Cultural Capital
History of the Concept of Capital in Sociological Studies
1. Adam Smith
Adam Smith, considered the father of modern economics, defined capital as goods that can produce an income for the owner (Patruti, 2013). This represented the next step in the development of the notion of capital.
It now came to denote something that is not just valuable in itself but is also capable of producing things of value.
2. Karl Marx
Karl Marx (1818-1883), in his treatise Das Kapital, published in 1867, added to these characteristics of capital, explaining that capital besides valuable, and being capable of producing value, is also capable of being accumulated.
Thus, by the 19th century, the term capital had acquired the range of meanings broadly associated with it today.
However, it was still mostly associated with economic activities. The broad range of phenomena to which it is applied came to be conceptualized as forms of capital only towards the end of the 19th century.
3. Max Weber
In the 19th century, the German sociologist Werner Sombart (1863-1941) defined capital as that amount of wealth which is used in making profits (Lane & Riemersma,1953).
Max Weber (1864-1920) expanded Sombart’s definition, tracing the beginning of capitalism to the invention of double-entry bookkeeping that allowed the capitalist to rationally evaluate the outcomes of the profit-making venture. (Carruthers & Espeland, 1991)
According to Weber, this led to a fundamental shift in human outlook, resulting in a capitalistic way of thinking that extended beyond the field of business and commerce to other walks of life.
Capital thus, for Weber, was tied intimately to a rational way of thinking that involved engaging in a profitable exchange by making the best use of the available resources. Such an exchange did not have to be commercial in nature – it could be social, political, or cultural as well.
Pierre Bourdieu is perhaps the most famous scholar to employ the concept in sociology, especially in regards to education.
In his 1977 essay alongside Jean-Claude Passeron, “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction”, he introduced the concept of cultural capital. Here, he referred to the cultural competencies of a person which could deliver social mobility and social status.
Bourdieu went on for the rest of his career to spell out the various types of cultural capital (embodied, objectified, and institutionalized) and how they operate to enable and constrain a person’s agency within society.
The word “capital” has a long history, evolving in meaning and scope through the centuries to encompass any sphere of human activity where the accumulation of something valuable and its conversion to another valuable form is rendered feasible by the prevailing system of social and economic relations. Sociologists study different types of capital, all of which fulfill the above mentioned criteria. Of these, social and cultural capital are the most common.
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
Lane, F. C. & Riemersma, J. (Eds.) (1953). Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History. Allen & Unwin.
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.