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Is Cultural Capital Still Useful in Education Research?

Published in Inequalities by on April 8, 2013

Thanks to last week’s publication of results from the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) in the Journal Sociology, Britain got to talking about social class once again. Not only that, thanks to the design of the research (led by Mike Savage and Fiona Devine), Britain was also talking about concepts borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu, namely social and cultural capital.

According to Mike Savage on the LSE website,

Our core finding is that the British class system is becoming more polarised between a prosperous elite and a poor ‘precariat’, and also that what used to be termed the middle and working classes seem to be splintering into social classes with systematically differing amounts of cultural and social capital.

The publication of these results got people talking about the various dimensions of social class in a way that hasn’t been seen in the public sphere for a while – a good thing, in my view (the debate over the parameters of a public sociology continue, somewhere else…). This activity will certainly be of interest to researchers who have focused on the relationship between class and educational outcomes, given that the concepts of Bourdieu – in particular cultural capital – have proven to be hardy perennials in discussions over schooling and inequality.     

That said, for all that Bourdieu rules the theoretical roost in educational research (especially when it comes to theories of class), cultural capital has not completely had its own way. To be fair, its nature and significance means that the concept of cultural capital attracts a certain form of research: Its status as a key concept in understandings of inequality and as a mediator of power differentials, makes it the ideal candidate for forms of education research that aim to ‘test’ particular hypotheses, three examples of which I included in Volume 1 ‘Inequality, inclusion and education’ of the Sage 4 volume Social theory and education research set. All three research papers suggest that caution should be exercised when attempting to find answers to persistent social inequalities in the field of culture.    

Carlo Barone’s paper ‘Cultural capital, ambition and the explanation of inequalities in learning outcomes: a comparative analysis’, explored the significance of cultural capital in educational settings, in particular the relation between social origins and student achievement. Using data from the Project for International Student Assessment on 25 nations (PISA), Barone’s findings suggest that cultural capital provides a ‘relevant, but far from exhaustive, account of schooling inequalities’. He argues that, in order to elaborate a more satisfactory explanation, two more factors need to be taken into account: occupational aspirations and economic resources. He also discusses whether these mentioned factors can be integrated into a coherent theoretical framework to achieve a better understanding of educational inequalities.

Anna Zimdars et al’s paper ‘Elite higher education admissions in the Arts and Sciences: is cultural capital the key?’ does something similar but this time in relation to access and admissions, examining the extent to which cultural capital helps to explain the link between social background and gaining an offer for study at the University of Oxford. Their findings only partly support Bourdieu’s ‘postulation of cultural capital as the main differentiator between fractions of the middle class’, arguing that there is a need for a more nuanced account of what cultural capital actually consists of:  

What matters is a relationship of familiarity with culture, rather than just participation in culture. In other words, it is not enough for parents to simply take their children to the museum, or send them to learn the flute, but children who read and understand high culture, and accumulate the cultural knowledge rewarded by the education system, fare particularly well in the competition for a place at Oxford.

This take on cultural capital tallies with the findings of the third paper on the same theme, Mads Meier Jaeger’s ‘Does cultural capital really affect academic achievement? New evidence from combined sibling and panel data’. Testing the hypothesis using new evidence from ‘combined sibling and panel data (longitudional and qualitative)’, Meier Jaeger found that the effects of cultural capital are ‘smaller than previously reported’, its effect varying in high and low socioeconomic status environments:

The effect of cultural capital variables in existing studies cannot be attributed exclusively to cultural capital because these effects most likely also capture the effect of omitted family and individual characteristics that are correlated with, but substantively different from, cultural capital. As a consequence, existing research has likely overstated the effect of cultural capital on educational success.

All three studies suggest that the ‘cultural turn’, for so long a significant corrective to overly-structural understandings of power and inequality, still has value. Its value, however, and as exemplified in these three studies, needs to be continually tested for it to remain as a reliable and dynamic concept in educational research. Given Bourdieu’s own antipathy to unreflective forms of social research, he surely wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.      

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About the author /

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.


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    Interesting post thanks Mark. I look forward to reading those articles in the Sage collection and I think you are right to say that cultural capital needs to constantly interrogated as an idea. Without this sort of work it can easily become a reified concept which is used as just another way of talking about the status of various cultural practices or even worse as a conceptual bin for all the sorts of things we do and value which are difficult to describe in relation to economic forms of capital.

    The links are also worth a look. I think the splintering and recomposition of class and class cultures that Mike Savage discusses is a fundamental issue for education and critical theory. Yet despite this (and despite the fact I think Mike Savage is one of the most interesting sociologists working in the UK) I am a little wary of this class model he sketches out here.

    My initial response from my reading of the brief article on the LSE website is that this is a sort of Goldthorpe meets Bourdieu affair. The strength of this it acknowledges the importance of culture and recognises the existence of the elite (the two issues that have most commonly bedevilled Goldthorpe’s stratification theory) but remains close to mainstream class taxonomies. Interestingly the idea of the precariat is used to describe only those with the lowest levels of cultural and economic capital. It is worth noting that the idea of precariat was developed over the past decade and a bit in order to describe the new types of insecurity which are shared across sections of the working and middle classes rather than a feature of life for the least well off and the most dominated. I am not sure using the term in the way Savage does here is that helpful theoretically or politically. I will need to go and look at the material in more detail before I know for certain.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    • Mark Murphy
      Mark Murphy

      Hi Fergal, apologies for the delayed response – I like your analysis of the precariat and its use in the recent class survey, a useful rejoinder to the usual rigid dichotomies. I think we need to see more of you on here Fergal – did you not recently successfully complete a PHD on social class and education?? The STA world would like to hear more 🙂

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