There are three types of cultural capital: embodied, objectified, and institutionalized.
These three types were formulated by Piere Bourdieu, the founder of the concept. According to Bourdieu, each of them can be acquired through your lifetime and leveraged to achieve social and economic capital.
What is Cultural Capital?
Culture comprises the art, architecture, music, literature, dress, customs, knowledge, rituals, and other intangible wealth of societies accumulated over centuries.
In every society, certain elements of culture become imbued with greater prestige than others, on account of factors such as:
- The scarcity of their occurrence,
- The magnitude of effort required to attain mastery over their practice,
- the direct or indirect monetary value associated with them, or
- a combination of some or all of these.
Such cultural elements are called cultural capital. Examples include the ability to speak a dialect, knowing to avoid cultural taboos, being a great violin player, and delicately navigating cultural etiquettes.
Like all forms of capital, cultural capital can be accumulated, has value, and can be exchanged for other things valuable.
Cultural capital is also closely linked to economic capital, as in most cases, the possession of economic capital is deemed a prerequisite for the diversion of time and labor from economic activities to the pursuit of cultural achievement.
Bourdieu’s Definition of Cultural Capital
The term cultural capital was coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002).
Bourdieu defined cultural capital as the preferential access to codes of high culture enjoyed by the dominant classes in a society who also happen to control economic resources (Bourdieu, 1986).
Bourdieu proposed that cultural capital is accumulated in a person’s habitus, or that sphere of the human self in which all that we receive from our social and natural environment is embedded.
In other words, while cultural capital, unlike economic capital, is not directly transferable from parents to their children, it is nonetheless inherited by the children as part of the environment in which they grow up.
Once accumulated and received, cultural capital acts much like economic capital in facilitating upward social and economic mobility for its recipients.
Types of Cultural Capital
Cultural capital is of 3 types:
1. Embodied Capital
Embodied cultural capital refers to knowledge or skills that a person acquires from his/her habitus. Examples include accents, etiquette, and a robust vocabulary.
Culture is embodied and performative. This means that for culture to survive through the ages, it must reside in/on our bodies (e.g through white privilege), and must be performed on an everyday basis.
So for example, languages that are not spoken on a regular basis die out.
Embodied cultural capital is intimately tied to the biological being of an individual. To continue with the example of languages, the linguistic skills of individuals are influenced by the environment they grow up in.
Even though each person must learn the language by themselves, how proficient they become in its use is shaped by their surroundings.
A child growing up in a high literary household is likely to possess greater felicity with words than a child growing up in a home where there is little diversity of vocabulary.
Most kinds of aesthetics or “taste” can similarly be conceived of as embodied capital.
2. Objectified Capital
Objectified capital is the value inherent in objects of culture, such as works of art.
Unlike embodied capital, objectified capital is more tangible. However, the mere possession of a valuable cultural object does not constitute objectified cultural capital.
Simply owning an expensive artwork without being able to decipher or appreciate it is not a form of cultural capital.
It is, rather, economic capital, as the artwork, in this case, is little more than a financial asset.
For the possession of the artwork to constitute objectified cultural capital, its owner must be educated in its historical, cultural, and aesthetic significance.
Such knowledge cannot be directly inherited, but, like all forms of cultural capital, is acquired by interaction with the habitus.
3. Institutionalized Capital
Institutionalized cultural capital is the value inherent in being recognized by an elite institution. For example, obtaining a Harvard university degree can be a sign of high institutionalized capital.
The most common form of institutionalized cultural capital is an elite education.
Like other forms of cultural capital, institutionalized cultural capital is not usually directly inherited, but is acquired through interaction with one’s habitus.
A child cannot inherit the educational qualifications of their parents but can find their path to a university-level education and beyond much facilitated by the resources and guidance made available by their university-educated parents and their network.
Like other forms of cultural capital, institutionalized capital indirectly translates to economic capital, as easy and preferential access to elite institutions leads to advantages in competing in the labor market or in business.
See Also: The 3 Types of Social Capital
Is Cultural Capital Good?
It is important to note that Bourdieu on the whole took a negative view of cultural capital, building on the Marxian tradition that viewed all forms of capital as exploitative.
For Bourdieu, cultural capital only served to exacerbate existing social inequalities in society.
The well-off in society have art and classical music in their homes, and as a result, their children grow up with a heightened sense of aesthetics which opens up avenues for personal and professional advancement not available to the working classes.
For Bourdieu, cultural capital could never be viewed without tracing its roots to wealth accumulation, as cultural objects were nothing but the “practices and assets salvaged from the icy water of egotistical calculation” (Bourdieu, 1986).
The languid, poetic “disinterestedness” of culture for Bourdieu was only the obverse side of the vigorous and cold economic rationality whose only purpose was to maximize monetary profit.
However, since Bourdieu, the concept has been adapted to explain a number of other phenomena, and may not carry anymore the sharply critical flavor that Bourdieu had originally invested it with.
Is there Criticism of Bourdieu’s forms of Capital?
Yes. Yosso’s (2005) community cultural wealth model argues that Bourdieu’s perspective tends to centralize the norms of the dominant white culture of society, failing to acknowledge the diverse forms of capital that are abundant and valued by marginalized groups. She instead proposed her own six forms of capital dominant among marginalized groups, particularly in communities of color in the united states. To learn about her six forms of capital, see my guide on Yosso’s community cultural wealth model.
- Social vs Cultural Capital
- Examples of Cultural Capital
- Examples of Social Capital
- 13 Types of Capital
Cultural capital can be thought of as a portmanteau phrase that places in metonymic proximity two very different words ( and worlds) – culture and capital – thereby displaying the distinctive characteristics of each.
Like economic capital, it is a store of value and bestows upward social and economic mobility upon its bearer. Similarly, people who lack cultural capital may become the victims of unconscious cultural bias, meaning they are subtly discriminated against due to their apparent cultural differences.
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]