Bourdieu’s Cultural Capital theory: Evolution, interpretation and prospects

Formulated in the 1960s/70s, Bourdieu’s concept of ‘cultural capital’ highlighted the ways in which educational structures reproduce social inequality. It has thus been highly influential in both educational and sociological research. Davies and Rizk ask what this theory means today, showing how three generations of cultural capital researchers have split into distinct branches, each displaying distinct methods and goals.

The first generation of researchers, mainly from North America, focused on children who grow up with ‘elite culture’ and their relative educational success. These children possess ‘cultural capital’ in terms of styles of interacting, art, and literacy. This generation mostly concludes that schools reproduce social stratification by imposing biased valuations on such cultural advantages. Here, Bourdieu´s ideas primarily added a final touch to existing findings on disparities in educational outcomes.

The second generation of researchers began to consider cultural experience, rather than social class, as a statistical predictor of status attainment. Researchers claimed that cultural activity, such as reading books and visiting museums, is the main resource that facilitates success. Placing cultural experience to the fore, this generation investigated which families engage in such activities, and which do not. On an emotional micro-level, this generation broke from Bourdieu by exploring causal explanations for active social mobility.

The third generation of researchers, from the beginning of the 21st century, has become even more dispersed. Three different streams, already present in the second generation, are now clearly visible. The first stream employs survey-based methods and quantitative tests to predict educational attainment according to cultural traditions, ethnic and linguistic dispositions, and the ways in which teachers handle these. The second stream scrutinises how parents and schools can build and/or deplete cultural capital, the role(s) that children play in such processes, and where conflicts may arise between these actors. The third stream examines status-defined group interactions between teachers, parents and youth from different cultures. For instance, they investigate how elite-white cultures interact with ethnically mixed street cultures, and how contact between various subcultures may lead to ‘mismatches’.

Because social structures and school curricula have changed in most Western societies since the cultural capital theory was developed, Davies and Rizk predict it will continue to be used in non-universal and flexible ways.

Anouk Ticheloven

Davies, S., & Rizk, J. (2018). The Three Generations of Cultural Capital Research: A Narrative Review. Review of Educational Research, 88(3), 331-365.

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