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Social Capital and Pierre Bourdieu: A Digest

Pierre Bourdieu is a sociologist who’s interest focused on social class and stratification along with inequality. His perspectives evolved through trying to develop a cultural anthropology of social reproduction. In the 1960s he described the dynamics of structured sets of values and ways of thinking as forming ‘the habitus’. This alludes to the space between the subjective agency and objective position.

Social Capital and Pierre Bourdieux: A Digest

Bourdieu examines the dynamics between the cultural institution and the individual; it might be interpreted that he focuses on how the institution is a space which takes agency away from some individuals and lends agency to others.

Groups can use cultural symbols to distinguish themselves, both signalling and constituting their position in the social structure.

He developed the idea of cultural capital as a method that groups use to identify and trade on status. For example, the ability to utilise Debrett’s Eticate is not a sign of intrinsic superiority but cultural currency used by a particular social group in order to maintain advantage over other groups. Whether this is simply a primate grooming exercise or a deliberate holding of group boundaries (or a mixture of both according to context) is a matter for discussion.

Cultural capital did not just represent people’s resources of financial capital. It is shaped by family circumstances and school tuition, and can exist independently of monetary holding and even compensate for lack of money as part of a strategy to pursue power and status.

Bourdieu developed a way of conceptualising agents in the social field as being determined in part by the amount and weight of their relative capitals and the strategies that they adopt to achieve their goals. We work not only with economic capital but also of cultural and social types too which may not be interchangeable however in combination may create new capital.

Bourdieu focused largely on cultural capital providing empirical indicators giving only one indicator for social capital – that of membership in golf clubs which is helpful in business. He published a series of notes on social capital and put the concept to work in his book “Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste”. In this book he critiques the conformity and mediocrity of the French university system.

In 1973 a discussion on how professionals secure their position and that of their children, he defined social capital as “A capital of social relationships which will provides, if necessary, useful ‘supports’: a capital of honourability and respectability which is often indispensable if one desires to attract clients in socially important positions, and which may serve as currency, for instance in a political career”.

He later refined his position in 1992: “Social capital is the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accure to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition”.

He suggested that in order for social capital to maintain its value, people had to work at it. He viewed the concept as an adjunct or dimension of cultural capital. Bourdieu’s thinking was concerned with understanding of social hierarchy. He thought that ‘economic capital is at the root of all other types of capital’, and he was interested how economic capital could combine with other forms of capital to create and reproduce inequality.

Inequality was to be explained by the production and reproduction of capital. He defined capital as ‘accumulated labour’ and includes as a factor ‘it takes time to accumulate’. To constrict the use of capital to economic perspectives has a marginalising effect on its meaning and usefulness. Something beyond self interest needs to exist to explain the world as we know it. Nevertheless Bourdieu importantly challenges the notion of immaterial exchanges such as passion of the artist or the love of a mate, as purely disinterested.

Both cultural capital and social capital should be treated as assets and valued as representing the product of accumulated labour. It is impossible to understand the social world without acknowledging the role of ‘capital in all its forms and not solely in one form recognized by economic theory’.

He had initially developed the concept of cultural capital in order to explain the unequal academic achievement of children from different social classes and from different groups within social classes. By pursuing appropriate ‘cultural investment strategies’ within the family, some social groups were able to ensure their children could realise the opportunities which came from education.

Thinking about psychological influences involved in this reproduction of cultural status we can examine other thinkers. The author Jerzy Kosinski depicts a horrific vision of being an outsider in the travels of a young boy in a brutal  European landscape during World War II.  The boy lives, for a while, with a solitary figure, who makes his living as a bird trapper. The following passage is taken from the book:

“One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone.”

In this Kosinski insinuates the primal instinct that exists to polarise against otherness – the tendency to reject any outsider that comes within the presence of the group. If the outsider is different or unlike the members of the group, he or she is moved out of the group and sometimes worse. Laura Spinney wrote an article on this behavioural trait in New Scientist magazine. Here is an excerpt:

“Humans have a deep-seated need to feel that they belong to a group, with both positive and negative consequences. What does it take to make a person feel like “one of us”? In other words, how small and arbitrary can a group be while still generating a feeling of “us” and “them”?

The “minimal group paradigm” was devised in the 1970s as a way to explore this. British social psychologist Henri Tajfel and colleagues found that flipping a coin, or simply telling people that a coin had been flipped and that they had been assigned to one of two teams as a result, was enough to produce a measurable preference in them for members of their own team.

Jay Van Bavel at New York University has replicated this finding many times. Typically, those taking part in his experiments never meet the other members of their group and know nothing about them. There is no game or competition involved, no prize or punishment at stake. They are simply told which group they are in and shown pictures of the other members for 2,3 or 4 seconds each. “That’s sufficient to get in-group bias,” he says. And, as Van Bavel has also found, sometimes that is all it takes for us to think of outsiders as less than human”

Bourdieu argued that in some respects, transmission of cultural capital represented the most effective form of transfer of capital as it was less readily subject to control such as you may find with economic wealth and taxation. Bourdieu wrote about how social capital was the ‘sole means’ of describing the ‘principle of the social assets’ which was visible where different individuals obtain a very unequal return on a more or less equivalent capital (economic or cultural) according to the extent to which they are able to mobilize by proxy the capital of a group (family, old pupils of elite schools, select club, nobility, etc).


Forms of capital pierre bourdieu
Click to Download Forms of Capital by Pierre Bourdieu


According to John Field’s reading of Bourdieu, social capital functions to reproduce inequality but does not partly independently of economic and cultural capital, from which it is nevertheless inseparable. My dealing with social capital is one which utilises the notions of inclusivity and externalities. With this in mind inclusive forms of social capital creates positive externalities, exclusive forms of social capital create negative externalities – a differential in agency across which inequalities can be leveraged. In this scheme of thinking it is conceivable that inclusive social capital give rise to a culture which narrows the inequalities existing.

The more transparent the economic value, the greater the convertibility but the lower its validity as a source of differentiation. Bourdieu wrote about the ways that different types of capital together distinguished ‘the major classes of conditions of existence’, and within each of these classes how capital gave rise to ‘secondary differences’ on the basis of ‘different distributions of their total capital among the different kinds of capital’. The density and durability of ties are important: social capital represents an ‘aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network’.

“Bourdieu illustrated the interplay between connections and cultural or financial capital drawing examples from professions such as lawyer or doctors who exploit their social capital – namely, ‘a capital of social connections, honourability and respectability’ to win the confidence of a clientele in high society, or even make a career in politics. By contrast, those who rely primarily on their educational qualification are, the most vulnerable in the event of ‘credential deflation’, not only because they lack connections but also because their weak cultural capital reduces their knowledge about fluctuations in the market for credentials”

Solidarity within networks has a basis of the fact that membership gives rise to profits, both material and symbolic. Interpersonal bonds and social capital requires maintenance and “investment strategies, individual or collective, aimed at transforming contingent relationships such as those of neighbourhood or workplace or even kinship into social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term; for these to be effective over the long term, they must involve durable obligations subjectively felt”

Bourdieu cites the example of gift exchanges ‘the endeavour to personalise a gift’ transforms both its purely monetary value and therefor its broader meaning, thus becoming ‘a solid investment, the profits of which will appear, in the long run, in monetary or other form with the act of investment taking the form of an unceasing effort of sociability.

Some social scientists have claimed that Bourdieu’s theory is the most theoretically coherent and persuasive sociological approach to the concept. Field suggests Bourdieu’s perspective of social capital as ‘the exclusive property of elites, designed to secure their relative position’. In an anthropological sense, with the notion of elite taken as a relative one denoting agency, status and position, this understanding of social capital can be move out from any cultural norm. A hangover can denote sameness to alcoholics, and therefore be an affirmation of social capital – one antithetical to a middle class notion invested in mortgage.

Another criticism of Bourdieu is that he roots his ideas in a relatively static model of social hierarchy. We must ask whether the social hierarchy proposed is static. Bourdieu acknowledges the decline of primordial forms of social organisation in Western Countries and claims that as families lose collective control over some forms of exchange, so new institutions take their place which are designed to favour legitimate exchanges and exclude illegitimate (i.e. the marriage choices of their offspring are replaced by dances, cruises, soirees, receptions and chic sports).

Bourdieu argued that social life “is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles’ whilst suggesting that post-structualism with its emphasis on discourse theory, which he suggested ‘reduced social exchanges to phenomena of communication and ignores the brutal fact of universal reducibility to economies’.

Bourdieu’s approach attempted to reconcile structuralist accounts of inequality with constructivist understandings of human agency. Bourdieu recognizes the possibilities for ‘embezzlement or misappropriation’ of social capital particularly among those who are allowed to represent institutional social capital.

Examples include the pater familias who is entitled to speak on behalf of the family or the aristocrat who benefits from the institutionalised connections of the nobility. While his concern for inequality and power are an invaluable corrective to Putnam and Coleman, his one sided emphasis on the merits of social capital for its holders is regarded a weakness by John Fields.

This is a digest extrapolated primarily from the work of John Fields’ book Social Capital: Key Concepts (Published by Routledge; ISBN: 0415433037)

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