Social Capital and Cultural Capital

In April of this year, the results of the BBC’s 2011 Great British Class Survey were published (free PDF available here). It’s quite a landmark study – it’s the largest survey of social class ever conducted in the UK, and consisted of a web survey having 161,400 respondents, as well as a parallel national representative face-to-face survey having 1026 respondents. The summary of the findings is:

Using latent class analysis on these variables, we derive seven classes. We demonstrate the existence of an ‘elite’, whose wealth separates them from an established middle class, as well as a class of technical experts and a class of ‘new affluent’ workers. We also show that at the lower levels of the class structure, alongside an ageing traditional working class, there is a ‘precariat’ characterised by very low levels of capital, and a group of emergent service workers.

An important and interesting feature of the study was what they measured as an indicator of class. We’re used to thinking of class inequality in terms of income. But the study instead used a more modern approach, where they measured three different kinds of “capital”: economic capital, social capital and cultural capital:

[…] a new, multi-dimensional way of registering social class differentiation. A highly influential scheme is that developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984), which argues that there are three different kinds of capital, each of which conveys certain advantages. He differentiates between (1) economic capital (wealth and income), (2) cultural capital (the ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods, and credentials institutionalised through educational success), and (3) social capital (contacts and connections which allow people to draw on their social networks). Bourdieu’s point is that although these three capitals may overlap, they are also subtly different, and that it is possible to draw fine-grained distinctions between people with different stocks of each of the three capitals, to provide a much more complex model of social class than is currently used. This recognition that social class is a multi-dimensional construct indicates that classes are not merely economic phenomena but are also profoundly concerned with forms of social reproduction and cultural distinction.

The researchers quantified cultural capital by the “highbrow” activities (theatre, classical music etc.) and “emerging” activities (social media etc.) the respondents engaged in. For social capital, they measured the number and importance of social contacts respondents had with 37 different occupations (i.e. do you know a doctor, a lawyer and so on). Do read the PDF linked above – even though the statistics went over the head of a layperson like me, it shares a lot of useful background knowledge and research about these topics.

It seems to me that the concepts of social and cultural capital are relevant to what those in social justice circles call privilege. What is capital after all – it’s an accumulation of useful assets. And when you belong to a privileged social group, that’s basically what you have – a store of advantages (the “invisible knapsack”). Some reading on Google Scholar reveals that social capital and cultural capital are heavily debated fields, in terms of definitions, measurements, scope, and even at what level they function – individual or group level. There is research on their application to social stratification – e.g. Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color; A Social Capital Framework for Understanding the Socialization of Racial Minority Children and Youths. So this is what I want to try to learn and explore in future posts on this topic.

For example, this clip from an American TV show (via The Sociological CInema) examines what kind of cultural and social capital one needs to feel at home in a fancy restaurant. It’s something I could relate to instantly, in fact I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum – a privileged Indian who goes to restaurants which exclude the vast majority of Indians, and a “fobby” student who endured numerous humiliations exactly like this.



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