Some Problems with Cultural Capital and Social Mobility

Initially appealing, at least to me, the idea of cultural capital has begun to worry me. Though not coined by someone who admitted to being a Marxist, Pierre Bourdieu did draw quite heavily on Marxist thinking when it came to expounding his thesis. It is about power. Simply put, if you speak posh, go on posh holidays, go to posh opera and take part in other cultural pursuits that give off an air of high culture you clearly have more power, and, for those who haven’t, they might be able to use these routes to find a way into the higher echelons of society. And, of course, this makes sense. Get rid of your common-accent, walk upright, have a copy of the Daily Telegraph under your arm, Apple-something or other to show off your tech savviness, drive a fine car or drink a fine wine (not at the same time) you are on your way. And as you go on your long march through the institutions don’t forget to dismantle them or else everybody else will have to go through the same metamorphosis or just go back to storming the barricades.

The problem is this cynical view of culture as power. In a heavily materialistic age where the buying of cultural significance and the snapchat instagrammed selfies of ‘one’ fine-dining, skiing, being-somewhere in my posh suit and/or frock, cultural artefacts become part of the performance of culture, a part of the ‘Precession of Simulacra’, in which all is intrinsically worthless, culture’s worth becomes merely surface – what it represents in terms of social standing. The power of representation has replaced quality of ‘the-things-in-themselves’.

Cultural capital is where identity politics meets cultural products, in which the socially immobile find themselves at the intersection of liking too many of the wrong things: they look and sound wrong, live in the wrong way and in the wrong places. This is where ‘whose knowledge?’ is entirely legitimised as a question because it is all about class and social mobility – in which knowledge has power rather than worth. For example, if tomorrow the upper echelons were to divest themselves of Wagner, Asparagus and Waugh and replace them with the habitus that showed appreciation for Little Mix, Big Macs and Dan Brown (not as guilty pleasures, mind you, I mean signify their power through these accoutrements) then everyone would have to follow suit – that is, if they wished to have the same capital and try to be ‘upwardly’ mobile…

Culture is not capital. Culture is a way of being-in-the-world, ways of-being-in-the-world, culture includes collections of ideas, artefacts, objects, pieces, ways of making a mark in the world, which reflect values, narratives and ways of communicating about what it is to be human in this world. That this can be infused with power is, of course, true… but that is only a small part of what culture gives us. The most important part is to negotiate meaning and understandings about the human condition.

If we only learn about:

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!”

…to give us the capital of those in power then this delights not me, for this knowledge should be open to all, not closed off in grammar schools, dusty old colleges and Ivy League campuses, nor taught to the hoi polloi for dubious instrumental purposes.

Added to this, the ability to take an engine apart and put it back together, to fish, to watch a ‘box set’ should not be seen as lesser… this isn’t ‘powerless-knowledge’ – knowledge that comes from home, family and friends is the base from which all other things flow.

A sense of some things being good throughout culture(s) and some other things not being so good, of being in the conversation around taste, discrimination, of even playing the game well, properly, beautifully is, maybe, more important a start in life than someone being brought up to just chase certain ‘expensive’ objects because they have certain labels attached to them.

What needs to be part of the conversation is not: “is this powerful? Will knowing this get me into a Russell Group University?” It should be: “Is this any good?’ A qualitative discussion about worth – is it beautiful, is it true, is it right? is more important. Culture is part of a more subjective way of seeing the world that can speak to the particular and join it, occasionally, with the universal. Being able to take part in the conversations helps us to be-in-the-world and to find meaning. Helping people become more culturally-mobile is a far better way of thinking about education, than the identity-laden language of social mobility and cultural capital.

You can read more about these ideas, if you so wish, in my book ‘Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine’.

4 thoughts on “Some Problems with Cultural Capital and Social Mobility

  1. In ensuring that we educate for the intrinsic human satisfaction of being ‘educated’, how do we nevertheless weigh-up and balance against the need to educate for ‘necessity’…? Saying that education mustn’t just be about instrumental concerns – being productive or a good citizen – doesn’t mean that education mustn’t also still be about those things.

    However we try to conceptualise an ideal for the project of schooling, the purpose(s) of education are ultimately set by the requirements and priorities of the society sponsoring the education system. Of course, we COULD educate the masses to only see the value of education as being about sensibility, but in reality, wider economic and political concerns dictate our priorities. A liberal arts education is always going to be an evolutionary luxury, which will be scorned by those who are still pre-occupied by addressing lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

    Productivity and citizenship are ultimately means to ends (even if participation in them does also provide a sense of day-to-day meaning). However, without educating for them, the ideal ends may never be reached.

    So… what is the heuristic that education leaders should use for orientating the wider project of education…?


  2. While doing the family tree, I was struck by the thought that social mobility works in two directions. While industry, education, enterprise, application and working ones contacts can help in rising up the social ladder, there are many reasons for being downwardly mobile too. Illness, disability, unworldliness or altruism, poor investments, gambling and other addictions, acts of God, parental desertion, can lead to loss of wealth, opportunity, and status.
    None of this is an argument for not having upward mobility, of course. But mobility in itself is insufficient; when we’re all being artistic and no one is clearing drains, caring for the infirm, then one needs to find a new underclass to do the graft. I’m attracted by your argument to revalidate craft – Richard Sennett is good on this – but there’s a part of me that wants to go further, to be Thoreau and tend to my vegetables in the woods. Just as fathers now should get the equal honour of changing a pooey nappy, then maybe we need to find better distribution not just of income, nor wealth, nor prestige; but also of the menial, the mundane, in order to give respect in that area of life too.
    As you say, skill is to be respected where it is found. The guy that does my plumbing, or maintains my car knows far more about their knowledge domains than I do (the pipework I did is shocking, and I nearly lost a wheel once!). The work that FE Colleges do is amazing in this respect, under grave conditions. The challenge, as Sennett argues I think, is how to give ownership of their craft to the practitioners – a line of thought going back to Ruskin and William Morris at least. I think this connects too to the Multiple Intelligences project, and arguments for arts education generally, such as those of Ken Robinson.

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  3. I was stunned recently by a university professor who said to me at a marketing event “actually, we mostly prefer students from [names of schools removed] because they come with the cultural capital already; we don’t have to start from ground zero.” She didn’t seem to think that this was a controversial or troubling statement to make.

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