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Bourdieu’s Notion of ‘Cultural Capital’: Critical Examine


Major themes in cultural theory have heavily borrowed from the close relationship between the systems of meaning and human action. It is also evident that other theories in their attempt to give comprehensive explanations have been forced to take a position on this issue. Taking the example of symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology which have largely allocated priority to the actor, one becomes convinced that little escape can be realized about this issue. At the same time, other theories like neo-Marxism, Parsonian functionalism, and structuralism have largely put their emphasis on the powers of systems of meaning that tries to put control on human agents (Smith 2001, p.133).

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One sociologist credited to the theory of culture is Pierre Bourdieu who extensively wrote on cultural theory and did extensive cultural research that most scholars still use today in their writings. Bourdieu was particularly successful in his work because it appealed to different audiences and at the same time, it portrayed the intellectual quality of high thinking and argument (Smith, 2001, p.134). Such intellectualism manifested in his work included: the effort to produce micro and macro levels of analysis where he was much concerned with the subjective experience of individuals and concerned with objective structures; Bourdieu’s work cut across several fields such as education, popular culture, arts, anthropology and sociology and as a result he draws a larger constituent of the audience; and he develops several key concepts such as field, habitus and cultural capital which becomes both intellectual persuasive and widely exchangeable to various research areas (Smith, 2001, p.134).

Bourdieu’s proposal for Reflexive sociology

Bourdieu became largely dissatisfied with the structuralism understanding of the society; particularly, he criticized the theory’s embodied distortion about objectivism (Smith, 2001, p.135). Structural theory vested belief in the notion that social life was driven by social rules that were attached to symbol systems and that such social rules were followed in a deterministic way. To Bourdieu, such belief and conclusion were in disregard of the role of agency and practical action in social life especially about questions of strategy and subjective emotions like honor and shame. Bourdieu, therefore, emphasized the retention of an understanding of the constraining traits of the social structure and the dominance of sociological acquaintance over common sense (Smith, 2001, p.135).

Bourdieu is convinced that not everyone can give or provide an adequate account and explanation of social life and it is from this inadequacy of some people that Bourdieu observes that there is a need to theorize the connection between structure and agency (Swartz and Zolberg 2004, p.4) without reducing analysis insubordination of the other. From this, he develops the concept of ‘reflexive sociology’ where he understands that there need to be ways of understanding how the theoretical models are influenced by human social and social scientific locations; and at the same time, there is a need for humans to become aware of their biases (Smith, 2001, p.135; Swartz and Zolberg, 2004, p.4 ). Once this is achieved Bourdieu is optimistic that humans can move forward by developing sociological concepts and theories which allow them to find the way between the perils of objectivism and subjectivism (Bourdieu, 1990, p.25).

Bourdieu’s concept of Habitus

As a result of advocating for a new form of sociology known as reflexive sociology, Bourdieu demonstrated his analytical departure from the structure and subjective experience and moved towards social practice. To him, the understanding of practices is that they need to reflect and reproduce both the objective social relations and a subjective interpretation of the world, thus achieving the idea of habitus is essential (Smith 2001, p.136). Habitus simply refers to the “systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices” (Bourdieu 1977; cited in Smith 2001, p.136). He uses the concept to practically bring together the ideas of structure with the ideas of practice.

In understanding habitus, Smart (2009, p.158) believes that the concept looks more to be embodied form of dispositions that is set up by the social structure and that in turn, reinforce the social structure. Habitus gives people the opportunity to capture conditions and practices by the principles and processes of delineation that promote social stratification but which are seen by many people to be natural (Smart, 2009, p.158). To Bourdieu, habitus is something that can be regarded as allowing people to behave efficiently in all spheres of life and it acts like a ‘lifeworld’ whereby it allows people to navigate life processes as competent human beings. Moreover, it can be seen as a collection of resources that people carry with them in such areas as their minds and bodies and which can be utilized in various social settings (Smith, 2001, p.136).

In a broad view, habitus can be seen to function by dominating people by reinforcing class distinctions, and to a larger extent, class structures. For instance, Bourdieu believes that those who occupy subordinate positions in society have no habitus which will allow them to enter with success into the life-improving patterns of action but instead, their habitus will furnish them with desires, motivations, knowledge, skills, routines, and strategies that to an extent will reproduce their inferior status (Smith, 2001, p.136).

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Cultural capital

Society is largely dominated by three kinds of capitals that prescribe social power and social inequality to individuals. For example, social capital dictates much on social ties that people establish for their benefit while economic capital describes financial resources (Smith, 2001, p.137). It is the cultural capital that has found immense contribution in the description theory by Bourdieu. According to Bourdieu, the concept has several dimensions on which it can be understood such as objective knowledge of the arts and culture; cultural tastes and preferences; formal qualifications in society’s various examinations and tests; cultural skills, and know-how, for example, the capability to play musical instruments; and lastly, the ability to be discriminating and to make distinctions between the good and bad (Smith, 2001, p.137).

Bourdieu regards culture as a dimension of a broader habitus that can reflect the social position of whoever possesses it. For instance, Bourdieu does not agree with the broad idea held that aesthetic judgments could be made in the perspectives of universal and objective criteria of what constitutes good or bad taste and instead demonstrated that taste was socially determined (Smith, 2001, p.137). Using different groups of people from the French society whom he placed in different classes of workers, academics, and technicians, Bourdieu showed through research that these classes had distinctive tastes in music, art, food, and other areas and his made him be convinced that cultural capital and which taste is one of its indicators was shaped by social position (Smith, 2001, p.137).

Although taste cannot be disputed as a social concept, it is Bourdieu’s assertion about the concept that portrays a form of twist for the concept. For instance, Bourdieu claims that cultural capital makes a difference and hence participates in perpetuating social divisions and inequalities (Smith, 2001, p.138). He is convinced that the elite in society is the ones who are bestowed with defining what is suitable or treasured cultural capital and what is devalued. During the period in which Bourdieu lived, his French society placed a greater value on high culture and less value on popular culture while at the same time distinguishing the precious from the insignificant. By defining what is rightful and unlawful cultural capital, the elites are participating in preserving the worth of their skills and knowledge and as a result confirm their status by promoting a high culture that is refined, intellectual, enduring, and serious while disregarding popular culture which to them is insignificant and temporary (Smith 2001, p.138).

Some institutions help the cultural capital and habitus in the process of social reproduction, which includes the schools and the assessment mechanisms like the school exams. Bourdieu believes that society is rightly open to mobility and there are no such strict rules or elite roadblocks that can prevent individuals or subordinate groups from moving upward of the social class. Smith (2001, p.138) disputes this assertion by Bourdieu by stating that in theory, anyone may perform well in programs of education while in practice this may not be the case.

Using studies from one of the French Universities, Bourdieu and Passeron in 1979 concluded that economic limitation could not be regarded in totality to be the main contributor to ‘education death rates’. Their argument rested on the observation that middle-class students had advantages in school and university compared to low-class students and this was as a result of the fact that students from middle-class had a general attitude and character in the classroom which reflected a cultural capital they had unknowingly acquired, for example, they had a romantic vision of academic training, were unconcerned about getting jobs and generally, they detested practical knowledge, timetables, routine and pedagogy (Smith, 2001, p.138). Bourdieu at the same time postulates that cultural capital takes years to acquire and in most cases becomes deeply entrenched in people’s sense of self. At the same time, cultural capital does not operate in isolation but works with other forces that are functioning in the wider social structure.


Although Bourdieu’s work has been revered and used by many scholars, it cannot pass without some intellectual criticisms. First, in one of the original articles to examine Bourdieu’s work on education, Swartz (1977; cited in Robbins, 2000, p.106) observed that Bourdieu had the style of “creating categories and concepts without carefully specifying their corresponding empirical referents.” In 1979, Bredo and Feinberg observed that “one of the major theoretical weaknesses with Bourdieu concepts is that they largely remain unclearly specified” (Robbins, 2000, p.106). What is evident from these two statements is that most of Bourdieu’s formulated concepts lack empirical testing and that they “display positivist disquiet about Bourdieu’s procedures” (Robbins, 2000, p.106). Concepts such as habitus, cultural capital, and the educational system have been criticized for their conceptual and empirical ambiguities. For instance, habitus appears to have been ‘loosely’ used by Bourdieu and which has caused confusion among many writers and scholars. Granovetter (1985, cited in Robbins, 2000, p.106) expresses the need for the concept of habitus to fulfill all the necessary functions and to explain the relations between economic action and social structure which currently it does not do. Schatzki holds skeptical views about Bourdieu’s use of the concept habitus where he states that “Bourdieu therefore, assigns two very different functions to the same mechanism, production of action and the specification of intelligibility” (Robbins, 2000, p.107). The author believes such actions by Bourdieu constitute a mistake.

It is Lamont and Lareau who get confused by the cultural capital that Bourdieu greatly wrote about. This leads them to assert that much of Bourdieu’s global theoretical framework specifically as expressed by cultural capital can be regarded as an informal academic standard that displays the absence of clear statements which therefore makes systematic comparison and assessment of the work to be extremely difficult (Robbins, 2000, p.107). Robbins believes that Bourdieu lacked ‘cultural universals’ in the social reality he tried to explain and in doing so he disregarded other useful variables; this, in turn, resulted in Bourdieu suggesting propositions that had different degrees of explanatory value in different situations (Robbins, 2000, p.107). Lastly, most of Bourdieu’s work lacks cross-cultural applicability and transfer for they largely rely on a ‘Frenchness’ outlook in formulating key concepts.

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It is important to appreciate the work done by Bourdieu where he largely sought to theorize the human sociality in which he discovered that it was the outcome of the strategic action of individuals operating within a constraining context of values. Because modern societies are largely capitalist, Bourdieu was convinced that they are still class societies and that distinction can be made of them based on economics and habitus. Such immense studies by Bourdieu have been used by many scholars in their works, and although various criticisms have been leveled at Bourdieu’s work, it remains one of the cherished and academically sound literature to strengthen the field of sociology.

Reference List

  1. Bourdieu, P., 1990. The logic of practice. CA, Stanford University Press. (Online). Web.
  2. Robbins, D., 2000. Bourdieu and culture. NY, SAGE. (Online). Web.
  3. Smart, C. S., 2009. Higher education: handbook of theory and research. NY, Springer. (Online). Web.
  4. Smith, P. D., 2001. Cultural theory: an introduction. NJ, Wiley-Blackwell. (Online). Web.
  5. Swartz, D. and Zolberg, V.L., 2004. After Bourdieu: influence, critique, elaboration. MA, Kluwer Academic Publishers. (Online). Web.

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