Pierre Bourdieu on Cultural Capital

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), developed the concepts of ‘habitus’ and cultural capital to explain the ways in which relationships of social inequality were reproduced through the education system. ‘Habitus’ is similar to Husserl’s concept of ‘lifeworld’, describing the dispositions or forms of subjectivity connected with a person’s material, corporeal and symbolic attributes. Here, Bourdieu analyses the role of cultural capital in determining educational outcomes:

When one speaks of [for instance] the aristocratic asceticism of teachers or the pretension of the petit bourgeoisie [lower middle classes], one is not only describing these groups by one, or even the most important, of their properties, but also endeavouring to name the principle which generates all their properties and all the judgement of their, or other people’s, properties. The habitus is necessity internalized and converted into a disposition that generates meaningful practices and meaning-giving perceptions … [A]n agent’s whole set of practices (or those of a whole set of agents produced by similar conditions) are both systematic, inasmuch as they are the product of the application of identical (or interchangeable) schemes, and systematically distinct from the practices constituting another life-style …

The schemes of the habitus, the primary forms of classification, owe their specific efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will. Orienting practices practically, they embed what some would mistakenly call values in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most significant techniques of the body-ways of walking or blowing one’s nose, ways of eating or talking—and engage the most fundamental principles of construction and evaluation of the social world, those which most directly express the division of labour (between classes, the age groups and the sexes) or the division of the work of domination, in divisions between bodies and between relations to the body … as if to give them the appearances of naturalness …

The specific role of the sociology of education is [to study the] … relations between cultural reproduction and social reproduction. This occurs when it endeavors to determine the contribution made by the educational system to the reproduction of the structure of power relationships and symbolic relationships between classes, by contributing to the production of the structure of the distribution of cultural capital among these classes …

[For instance,] the statistics of theatre, concert, and, above all, museum attendance (since in the last case, the effect of economic obstacles is more or less nil) are sufficient reminder that inheritance of cultural wealth which has been accumulated and bequeathed by previous generations only really belongs (although it is theoretically offered to anyone) to those endowed with the means of appropriating it for themselves. In view of the fact that the apprehension and possession of cultural goods as symbolic goods … are possible only for those who hold the code making it possible to decipher them or, in other words, that the appropriation of symbolic goods presupposes the possession of the instruments of appropriation …

The existence of such a powerful and exclusive relationship between the level of education and cultural practice should not conceal the fact that, in view of the implicit presuppositions that govern it, the action of the educational system can attain full effectiveness only to the extent that it bears upon individuals who have previously granted a certain familiarity with the world of [high culture] by their family upbringing. Indeed, it would seem that the action of the school, whose effect is unequal (if only from the point of duration) among children from different social classes, and whose success varies considerably among those upon whom it has an effect, tends to reinforce and to consecrate by its sanctions the initial inequalities.

The education system reproduces all the more perfectly the structure of the distribution of cultural capital among classes … in that the culture which it transmits is closer to the dominant culture and that the mode of inculcation practiced by the family … An education system which puts into practice an implicit pedagogic action, requiring initial familiarity with the dominant culture, and which proceeds by imperceptible familiarization, offers information and training which can be received and acquired only by subjects endowed with the system of predispositions that is the condition for the success of the transmission and of the inculcation of the culture … This consists mainly of linguistic and cultural competence and that relationship of familiarity with culture which can only be produced by family upbringing when it transmits the dominant culture.

In short, an institution officially entrusted with the transmission of the instruments of appropriations of the dominant culture which neglects methodically to transmit the instruments indispensable to the success of its undertaking is bound to become the monopoly of those social classes capable of transmitting by their own means, that is to say by that diffuse and implicit continuous educational action which operates within cultured families (often unknown to those responsible for it and to those who are subjected to it), the instruments necessary for the reception of its message, and thereby to confirm their monopoly of the instruments of appropriation of the dominant culture and thus their monopoly of that culture …

By making social hierarchies and the reproduction of these hierarchies appear based upon the hierarchy of ‘gifts’, merits, or skill established and ratified by its sanctions, or, in a word, by converting social hierarchies into academic hierarchies, the educational system fulfils a function of legitimation which is more and more necessary to the perpetuation of the ‘social order’ as the evolution of the power relationship between classes tends more completely to exclude the imposition of a hierarchy based upon the crude and ruthless affirmation of the power relationship …

The objective mechanisms which enable the ruling class to keep the monopoly of the most prestigious educational establishments, while continually appearing at least to put the chance of possessing that monopoly into the hands of every generation, are concealed beneath the cloak of a perfectly democratic method of selection which takes into account only merit and talent, and these the members of the dominated classes whom they eliminate in the same way as they convert those whom they elect, and which ensures that those who are ‘miraculously elected’ may experience as miraculous an exceptional destiny which is the best testimony of academic democracy.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 170, 466. || Amazon || WorldCat

—. 1973. ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.’ Pp. 71–112 in Knowledge, Education and Social Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education, edited by R. Brown. Tavisock, UK: Tavistock Publications. pp. 71, 73, 78, 80–81, 84, 85–86.


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