Tracker Pixel for Entry

​The Critical Role of Cultural Capital

by HPR Contributor | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Editorial | June 26th, 2019

HPR crew and HPR alumni at the capital - photograph by Sabrina Hornung

By Gary Olson
olsong@moravian.edu

When categorizing my class background I’ve invariably replied “working class” but in truth that was more aspirational than factual. My father was either unemployed or underemployed and died of a heart attack at age 46 while working as a night shift orderly at a veteran’s hospital in Fargo, ND. I was 12-years-old, with a 7-year-old brother, and thereafter our family income consisted of whatever my mother earned from doing infrequent odd jobs and the social security checks she received for her two boys. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, we had a small house.

Given our socioeconomic status, I had virtually no exposure to music other than the radio’s C&W variety, no domestic or foreign travel save annual visits to my grandparent’s small farm, no books of my own, records, visits to art museums, or attendance at musical or theater performances. Reading material was limited to the local rag, the odd copy of The Reader’s Digest and trips to Fargo’s public library. Dinner conversations didn’t include soliciting my opinions.

I experienced my lot in life as tragically unfair and even harbored some inchoate bitterness. Later, my 14-year old teenage self merged this background with unarticulated feelings of self-doubt, of not being “good enough,” especially in relation to my better-off peers. My point here is that it wasn’t until much later I realized my experience was virtually textbook in terms of how clandestine social reproduction of class works and does so in such an efficacious manner.

We know that economic capital is accumulated labor institutionalized in the form of property and is at the root of all other forms. One of these forms is cultural capital, a concept originating with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). He argued that cultural capital greatly facilities inequality, in part because the elite classes determine which forms of cultural capital are “legitimate” and if mastered, enhance one’s social mobility.

Arguably, the best example is education where the children of the owning class enter the educational system with immense cultural capital advantages. And to be clear, possessing cultural capital isn’t synonymous with being intelligent. Cultural capital includes what one learns outside a formal educational setting and includes non-economic resources, skills and behaviors one accumulates that demonstrate cultural competence. One demonstrates that competency in social interactions and educational settings reward the exhibition of cultural capital. School is one of those settings.

Transmission of cultural capital depends on the cultural capital “previously invested by the family.” This hereditary transmission begins at birth for the offspring of wealthy families and continues through childhood. The length of free time (free of economic necessity) is one significant advantage that’s extremely hard for others to overcome.

What does it look and sound like? It includes collective symbolic elements such as taste, mannerisms, clothing, educational credentials (an Ivy League education, for example), a certain and unmistakable style of speech, how to confidently talk to gatekeepers of social advancement. It might include knowing certain foreign films, food and drink preferences, authors, philosophers and different kinds of music. According to Bourdieu, nothing “is more classifying than music.” Incidentally, the upshot is that high status cultural symbols are internalized and converted into socioeconomic gains. To greatly simplify, one learns what to say (and not to say) and how to say it at dinner parties!

And speaking of social settings, as a newly minted Ph.D. at the start of my career, I recall attending a dinner party where all the other attendees were middle-aged academics. Over cocktails, the conversation flowed with names and places that meant nothing to me. From art-house films, summer concerts at Tanglewood, and vacations in Italy or “The Cape” to a new off-broadway play, whether a certain author deserves a favorable review in The New York Review of Books and the best gin for martinis.

I still recall feeling queasy and apprehensive about the next few hours and pleading illness, I made an early departure. My meager cultural capital account was already overdrawn. Are such people pretentious, self-congratulatory snobs? Do they, in Baudelaire’s phrase, experience “a feeling of joy at [one’s] own superiority?” According to Bourdieu, cultural capital is acquired unconsciously and disguises educational advance as based solely on individual effort and therefore is wholly deserved.

Later that “earned merit” distinguishes its owner in ways that permit access to high level, dominant positions. It’s especially insidious in that even if remedial efforts reduce actual economic inequality occur, this “clandestine circulation of cultural capital becomes determinant” in obtaining rare positions of privilege and power. Note: For years I quoted Bourdieu but never publicly uttered his name. Why? Because I feared mispronouncing it, thus sadly showing the hold that a dearth of cultural capital can still exert.

According to Bourdieu, most people unreflectively accept their “sense of place” within the hierarchy. In academia, it’s long been an anomaly for someone from a working class background to attain faculty status at an elite college or university. The sorting process begins early but even if one gets through the “old boy’s network,” gender and racial barriers, and miraculously obtains an interview, there’s more to overcome. That is, it’s not implausible to assume that hiring committees look favorably on applicants displaying similar levels of cultural capital on the reasonable belief that future friendships may follow. Finally, based on both anecdotal and published research, the know the rare working class hire will invariably feel like a fish out of water.

In my own case, I accepted a position at a very respectable college and became what I’d charitably describe as a semi-public, semi-intellectual. I was neither a red diaper baby (closer to red, white and blue) nor owned a copy of Bourdieu for Dummies. But over some 45 years and due to highly unusual circumstances not of my own doing, including the often discounted role of pure luck, I unintentionally accumulated checkered aspects of cultural capital. My relatively privileged position as a college professor afforded me substantial discretionary time.

For example, invariably traveling on someone else’s dime I was able to teach and travel abroad several times and also spend summers pursuing my interests without financial encumbrance. Eventually I was able to “pass” in some settings but never within the easy comfort zone of those who gained cultural capital almost by osmosis. I should quickly add that I’m grateful that in my early twenties I joined and have remained on the right side of the class struggle.

Why is any of this important? On a personal level, one reason I went into teaching was to help students, many of them first generation college attendees, to gain a better appreciation of how their identities and “place in the world” was shaped, not only by huge disparities in economic capital but the equally insidious tool of cultural capital. By demystifying this wholly fraudulent operation, I hoped students would feel empowered and the possibilities for political struggle to eliminate both forms of capitalist oppression would be enhanced. Today, the need for disarming this weapon has never been stronger.

[Editor’s note: Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA]

Recently in:

News

​Man and the moon

by C.S. Hagen

VALLEY CITY – Lowell Busching shuffled into The Vault, pointed to the staff-less counter featuring self-serve sandwiches, Kuchen, and coffee before launching into a history of the building, once a bank. Books and magazines are…

You probably won’t be connecting an Ethernet cable to your smartphone anytime soon. But it’s usually worth running Ethernet cables to the devices that matter, if you can—gaming and media PCs (or consoles), backup devices, and…

Thursday, July 25, 6:30-8:30 p.m.Zandbroz, 420 N Broadway, FargoAuthor Sarah Coomber will be making an appearance at Zandbroz for a reading and signing of her recently released memoir, "The Same Moon." Recently wed and soon…

It’s no secret Theodore Roosevelt loved North Dakota. It’s also no secret North Dakotans love Teddy. He left us with a legendary legacy and it’s no wonder that the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will be in the…

Gadfly

​Freedom???

by Ed Raymond

There Seems To Be A Lot Of Confusion About What Freedom Is!At a recent conference of the evangelical Christian’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Chairman Ralph Reed, long a hard worker for the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, had…

To say that this year’s Bartenders Battle was the best display of talent in the six years since its creation would be an understatement and a disservice to not only the bartenders who made it into the competition, but also the…

By Teresa Farrelltara.Ekren@essentiahealth.orgLove it or hate it, it’s rhubarb season! Rhubarb brings back good memories for me.Growing up on the family farm, my siblings and I would head outside with a bowl of sugar, snap off…

High Plains Reader had the opportunity to catch up with Sarah Shook, front woman of the North Carolina based punk country band Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. We had a chance to talk about life and love from the road, where she…

Legendary British skipper Tracy Edwards, who in 1989 led the first all-female crew of sailors to compete in the tough-as-nails, 33,000-mile Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, makes for a convincing heroine in filmmaker Alex…

Arts

‘Local American epics’

by Sabrina Hornung

The US Postal Service recently released a set of stamps celebrating the New Deal era post office murals that were federally commissioned during the Roosevelt administration, though the mural that graces the walls of the New…

The annual mainstage summer musical, produced by Trollwood Performing Arts School and sponsored by Bell Bank, opens Thursday, July 11. This year’s performance is Disney’s “Freaky Friday.” Trollwood Performing Arts…

Stand-up comedy is traditionally a one-way exchange. Outside of the odd question addressed to a random audience member, the limit of the spectators’ contribution to the conversation is their laughter at the comedy stylings being…

If you’re from the region you may have sipped, sampled or caught word of a libation often referred to as “red eye” or “wedding whiskey” at some point. In fact some of our friends of German Russia descent swear by it. If…

Wellness

Yoga on the Farm

by Ryan Janke

Every Thursday evening during the month of June, Mara Solberg is inviting people to come out and try Yoga on the Farm. It is a unique yoga experience that was born from an idea that was proposed to Solberg.“I’ve been with Red…

by Devin Joubertdevinlillianjoubert@gmail.comIt’s that beautiful time of the year that’s filled with seasonal decorations, sparkly lights, warm family gatherings, and delicious feasts. I love everything about this time of the…

Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights…The purpose of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of woman and man; these rights are liberty, property, security, and…