Cultural capital is the knowledge, experience and or connections one has had through the course of their life that enables them to succeed more so than someone from a less experienced background.
Cultural capital (le capital culturel) is a sociological concept that has gained widespread popularity since it was first articulated by Pierre Bourdieu. Sociology (from Latin: socius "companion" and the suffix -ology "the study of" from Greek λόγος lógos "knowledge" Pierre Bourdieu ( August 1, 1930 – January 23, 2002) was an acclaimed French Sociologist and writer known for his Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron first used the term in Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction (1973). In this work he attempted to explain differences in educational outcomes in France during the 1960s. It has since been elaborated and developed in terms of other types of capital in The Forms of Capital (1986); and in terms of higher education, for instance, in The State Nobility (1996). For Bourdieu, capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation (cited in Harker, 1990:13) and cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers power AND status. 
In 'The Forms of Capital' (1986), Bourdieu distinguishes between three types of capital:
Later he adds symbolic capital (resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition) to this list. In Sociology and Anthropology, symbolic capital can be referred to as the resources available to an individual on the basis of honor prestige or recognition
Cultural Capital is comprised of three subtypes: embodied, objectified and institutionalised (Bourdieu, 1986:47). Bourdieu distinguishes between these three types of capital:
The concept cultural capital is fundamentally linked to the concepts of fields and habitus. These three concepts have been continually developed throughout all of Bourdieu’s work. A field can be any structure of social relations (King, 2005:223). It is a site of struggle for positions within that field and is constituted by the conflict created when individuals or groups endeavor to establish what comprises valuable and legitimate capital within that space. Therefore one type of cultural capital can be at the same time both legitimate and not, depending on the field in which it is located. It can be seen therefore, that the legitimation of a particular type of cultural capital is completely arbitrary. The power to arbitrarily determine what constitutes legitimate cultural capital within a specific field is derived from symbolic capital.
Habitus is also important to the concept of cultural capital, as much of cultural capital can be derived from an individual’s habitus. It is often defined as being dispositions that are inculcated in the family but manifest themselves in different ways in each individual. (Harker, 1990:10; Webb, 2002:37; Gorder, 1980:226). It is formed not only by the habitus of the family (Harker et al, 1990:11) but also by the objective chances of the class to which the individual belongs (King, 2005:222), in their daily interactions (Gorder, 1980:226) and it changes as the individual’s position within a field changes (Harker, 1990:11).
The concept of cultural capital has received widespread attention all around the world, from theorists and researchers alike. It is mostly employed in relation to the education system, but on the odd occasion has been used or developed in other discourses. Use of Bourdieu’s cultural capital can be broken up into a number of basic categories. First, are those who explore the theory as a possible means of explanation or employ it as the framework for their research. Second, are those who build on or expand Bourdieu’s theory. Finally, there are those who attempt to disprove Bourdieu’s findings or to discount them in favour of an alternative theory. The majority of these works deal with Bourdieu’s theory in relation to education, only a small number apply his theory to other instances of inequality in society.
Those researchers and theorists who explore or employ Bourdieu’s theory use it in a similar way as it was articulated by Bourdieu. They usually apply it uncritically, and depending on the measurable indicators of cultural capital and the fields within which they measure it, Bourdieu’s theory either works to support their argument totally, or in a qualified way. These works help to portray the usefulness of Bourdieu’s concept in analysing (mainly educational) inequality but they do not add anything to the theory.
One work which does employ Bourdieu’s work in an enlightening way is that of Emirbayer & Williams (2005) who use Bourdieu’s notion of fields and capital to examine the power relations in the field of social services, particularly homeless shelters. The authors talk of the two separate fields that operate in the same geographic location (the shelter) and the types of capital that are legitimate and valued in each. Specifically they show how homeless people can possess “staff-sanctioned capital” or “client-sanctioned capital” (2005:92) and show how in the shelter, they are both at the same time, desirable and undesirable, valued and disparaged, depending on which of the two fields they are operating in. Although the authors do not clearly define staff-sanctioned and client-sanctioned capital as cultural capital, and state that usually the resources that form these two capitals are gathered from a person’s life as opposed to their family, it can be seen how Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital can be a valuable theory in analysing inequality in any social setting.
A number of works expand Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital in a beneficial manner, without deviating from Bourdieu’s framework of the different forms of capital. In fact, these authors can be seen to explore unarticulated areas of Bourdieu’s theory as opposed to constructing a new theory. For instance, Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch (1995:121) examine how those people with the desired types of cultural (and linguistic) capital in a school transform this capital into “instrumental relations” or social capital with institutional agents who can transmit valuable resources to the person, furthering their success in the school. They state that this is simply an elaboration of Bourdieu’s theory. Similarly, Dumais (2002) introduces the variable of gender to determine the ability of cultural capital to increase educational achievement. The author shows how gender and social class interact to produce different benefits from cultural capital. In fact in Distinction (1984:107), Bourdieu states “sexual propertimes are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity”. He simply did not articulate the differences attributable to gender in his general theory of reproduction in the education system. Cultural reproduction is the transmission of existing cultural values and norms from generation to generation That allows a certain thing to exist, or not exist. . . . that is the question.
On the other hand, two authors have introduced new variables into Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. Emmison & Frow’s (1998) work centres on an exploration of the ability of Information Technology to be considered a form of cultural capital. The authors state that “a familiarity with, and a positive disposition towards the use of bourgeoisie technologies of the information age can be seen as an additional form of cultural capital bestowing advantage on those families that possess them”. Specifically computers are “machines” (Bourdieu, 1986:47) that form a type of objectified cultural capital, and the ability to use them is an embodied type of cultural capital. This work is useful because it shows the ways in which Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital can be expanded and updated to include cultural goods and practices which are progressively more important in determining achievement both in the school and without.
Hage uses Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital to explore multiculturalism and racism in Australia. His discussion around race is distinct from Bourdieu’s treatment of migrants and their amount of linguistic capital and habitus. Hage actually conceives of “whiteness” (in Dolby, 2000:49) as being a form of cultural capital. ‘White’ is not a stable, biologically determined trait, but a “shifting set of social practices” (Dolby, 2000:49). He conceptualises the nation as a circular field, with the hierarchy moving from the powerful centre (composed of ‘white’ Australians) to the less powerful periphery (composed of the ‘others’). The ‘others’ however are not simply dominated, but are forced to compete with each other for a place closer to the centre. This use of Bourdieu’s notion of capital and fields is extremely illuminating to understand how people of non-Anglo ethnicities may try and exchange the cultural capital of their ethnic background with that of ‘whiteness’ to gain a higher position in the hierarchy. It is especially useful to see it in these terms as it exposes the arbitrary nature of what is “Australian”, and how it is determined by those in the dominant position (mainly ‘white’ Australians).
Criticisms of Bourdieu's concept often rest on a specific understanding on his concepts. Researchers (e. g. De Graaf et al, 2000; Kalmijn & Kraaykamp, 1996) often tend to define cultural capital very narrowly in terms of participation in and understanding of “highbrow” (De Graaf et al, 2000:93) culture (that is, theatre, classical musical, museums, art, etc) and then proceed to argue that this narrow definition is not useful in understanding educational inequality. Similarly, a number of theorists (Gorder, 1980; Robbins, 1991; Kingston, 2001) read Bourdieu’s work as discounting the notion of a working class culture, by saying that cultural capital is something that only people from elite or dominant social classes have, and that to succeed in education, lower class people must acquire cultural capital. Defining cultural capital in either of these ways, does indeed limit the usefulness of the term in understanding inequality.
However Bourdieu includes any and all cultural resources available to any individual or group in any field. Capital is valued, or not, depending on the field it is located within. An example of this would be a person from a lower class who in the field of the classroom may speak in a blunt and inelegant manner, so not possess the legitimate and valued linguistic cultural capital of that field, but in the field of the playground, surrounded by other lower class people, this manner of speaking constitutes the most legitimate type of linguistic cultural capital. Therefore cultural capital is not narrowly defined to include only ‘highbrow’ culture and it does allow for the existence and value of working class cultures in particular fields.
In addition, theorists often tend to point to the deterministic nature of Bourdieu’s work. For example, in the work of Robinson & Garnier (1986:147) the authors write that an educational curriculum “can be appreciated only by those from well-educated families” and that “the level of education obtained is nothing more than certified cultural capital”. These interpretations of Bourdieu purport him to be structuralist allowing no room for other factors or individual agency.
This is also a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Bourdieu’s theory. In fact, in current social theory Bourdieu is often described as a theorist who tackles the idea of structure versus agency, and of objectivism versus subjectivism (King, 2005; Webb, 2002; Harker, 1990) and attempts to move beyond these dichotomies. As Webb states, “Bourdieu insists that practice is always informed by a sense of agency…but that the possibilities of agency must be understood and contextualised in terms of its relations to the objective structures of a culture” (2002:36). Certainly Bourdieu talks about “objective chances” (1990:156) and “objective probabilities” (1990:157) rather than certainties. Harker believes that the misunderstanding mainly stems from the fact most people only read his English, educational works. He argues Bourdieu’s later ethnographic work, further develops the concepts of habitus and capital, and explores in more detail the role of agency. However Bourdieu’s attempts to reformulate his theory of education around the greater role of agency have not been translated into English.
Misunderstanding is widespread. Indeed, one author goes so far as to remark that the concept of cultural capital is inherently limited in its usefulness because, “after all, (Bourdieu) is an economic reductionist” (Martin & Szelenyi, 1987:282). However, in Distinction (1984), Bourdieu incorporates into his social class framework a number of non-economic criteria for stratification, in such a way that economic capital is not the only or necessarily even the most relevant way of determining class groupings. This is a distinct move away from an economic reductionist view of class and society.
Finally some theorists critique Bourdieu for his omission of gender differences in the reproduction of classes. Kanter (in Robinson & Garnier, 1986) identifies a process called “homosocial reproduction” whereby men in managerial positions tend to reproduce themselves by hiring those people on the basis of social and gender similarity to themselves. That means, that even women who have the same class background (and therefore same cultural capital) as men may face exclusion from high-level managerial positions. Robinson & Garnier (1986) believe that theory of cultural capital is incapable of explaining this phenomenon, and therefore conclude that cultural capital is not very useful in understanding class reproduction. It was, however, noted above that Bourdieu recognised the importance of gender. It is however a weakness of his theory that he did not explore this area in his work.
As is apparent many critiques have been given of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital, depending on the orientation of the author, their interpretation of Bourdieu’s theory and the area of the study. The majority of critiques can be overcome by a more open and thorough reading of Bourdieu’s work. Especially with regards to the deterministic, structuralist, or economic reductionist claims, a reading of his complete works, (those in French as well as English) show that Bourdieu has developed his theory of habitus to encompass both structural considerations and agency, and his incorporation of culture and cultural capital into his framework of social class and social reproduction demonstrates that he clearly does not reduce everything to economics. Cultural reproduction is the transmission of existing cultural values and norms from generation to generation The other weaknesses identified above, emerge not so much from erroneous ideas in his theory but from a lack of exploration and articulation of a range of issues. This is understandable, as it is almost impossible to construct a theory which addresses every issue, in every context, and does so accurately.
One of the main strengths of the theory is that it does to some extent focus on how structures and institutions play a part in producing inequality. With so much focus now on the individual, it seems that so often inequality and disadvantage are seen as the result of an individual’s actions. Bourdieu, by exposing the reproductive role that educational institutions have, provides a way of examining other institutions in society to uncover any roles they may have in reproducing inequality. In the example of schools provided by Bourdieu, one can identify many or all of the impediments to removing inequality by analysing the forces and influences that act on students to either increase or decrease the chance of success, and allows for the future removal of these impediments and the progression towards a just and equitable society for all.
Other strengths are: