I’d find it hard to recommend Pierre Bordieu’s Distinction to anyone. It’s written in dry academic prose. It’s overly long. It even weighs a ton – I’ve been propping my patio door open with it all summer. Yet it contains some interesting and important ideas. Cultural capital in particular is a useful concept to decode the world around us.
Grayson Perry’s landmark documentary TV series All in the best possible taste brought the concept to my attention. He described how many middle class people he met felt anxious talking about their choices of home furnishing. The people he spoke to didn’t talk about shopping, but curating, alighting on things and bestowing meaning on them. The items people displayed in their homes – photos from their travels, furnishings, books – were chosen with a subconscious purpose. People were saying things about themselves.
Cultural capital was the concept that Perry used to help tease apart the different social groupings. Residents of the King’s Hill estate (Beamers and Beyoncé) were a world away from residents of Tunbridge Wells 15 miles away (Organic Veg Boxes and the Guardian). What interested me was as far as a recruiter is concerned these people would have been identical: BC1s with similar incomes and qualifications. Cultural capital captured the nuance which our beloved JINCARs scale (ABC1C2DE) missed.
Bordieu took the idea of capital and “extended it beyond the financial into the realm of culture”. Taste – in books, film, travel etc – creates a collective identity, a sense of “people like us” distinct from everyone else. As the introduction states: “taste classifies, and classifies the classifier.”
Your status thus might be derived from a combination of your:
- Economic capital – financial assets/resources
- Human capital - education or training that increases productivity in a job
- Social capital – networks of influence and support, relationships
- Cultural capital – expressions of things you love and how you’d like others to see you. These might be objects (e.g. record collection) or they might be embodied (e.g. tattoo).
Have you got any framed photos from your holidays displayed at home? Lots do. Objects in the home communicate, both intentional explicit signals (e.g. I have been to Brooklyn) and implicit signals (e.g. I am an interesting person, I am adventurous). Books are another good example. People tweeting pics of their #bookshelfie are literally basking in reflected wisdom. Do you think they guy on the top-left is a film-buff?
As it subtly depicts status, attempts at displaying cultural capital are often imitative. Some efforts are more convincing than others. Whilst the music, literature and politics changes decade by decade the subtext of many student rooms remains constant:
“He exhaled through his nose and shuffled up the bed, taking in the shabby rented room, knowing with absolute confidence that somewhere amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays there would be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy ideal boyfriend. In his last four years he had seen any number of bedrooms like this…She had that arty girl’s passion for photomontage too… Nothing here was neutral, everything displayed an allegiance or point of view. The room was a manifesto. The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same.” One Day, David Nicholls
A bit 80s but you get my point.
The questions “what is this person choosing to display?” and “what are they trying to say?” or even “who is this person trying to be?” can be a useful way to tease apart social groupings. Map what an in-group or peer group value and you can start to delineate and classify. Some lovely imagery here:
“…as we speak of a cloud or a forest, although in each case the density of the trees or droplets is a continuous function and the limit is not a clear-cut line, so we can speak of class… In this universe of continuity, the work of construction and observation is able to isolate (relatively) homogeneous sets of individuals…” Distinction, p256
Search for cultural capital online and you’ll soon find an abundance of terrified students grappling with the concept, begging someone to provide a working definition. Overlapping and hazy definitions detract from the concept. Some definitions are so broad that they become meaningless.
Wikipedia goes with non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Cultural capital in this broadest sense feels more akin to “soft skills” – for example knowing what to wear and how to act in a job interview makes you more likely to land the role.
Sociologists are concerned with the idea as a process: how investing in cultural capital can give a return on investment. For example cultural capital is transformed into financial capital when people get jobs, spouses, and business contacts from knowing the right way to act. As this knowledge comes from school and family it means the middle classes have a head start, which opens up conversations about social mobility. That’s a topic for another day.
So to sum up:
1) The framework of different forms of capital can be a useful spur when considering identity, giving us more confidence to focus on connotations (rather than denotations). This might be differences within or between social groups. On an individual level losing one form of capital might prompt activity in another.
2) Whilst academics use formal definitions, their breadth makes them less useful to market researchers. It’s OK to go our own way.
3) Visiting respondent homes might just take a little longer from now on.