Whose Cultural Capital?

“[educationl is in fact one of the most effective means of perpetuating the existing social pattern, as it both provides an apparent justification for social inequalities and gives recognition to the cultural heritage, that is, to a social gift treated as a natural one.” (Bourdieu, 1974, p. 32)

Education maintains inequality.

Bourdieu argues that in the ‘higher class’ or bourgeois family cultural capital, an arbitrary ‘gift’, is passed on easily, thus enabling the higher class to maintain its overall position in society. This class strengthens its position through the education system by ensuring that the cultural capital transmitted in the education system is the same as the one it inculcates at home. The lower class are disadvantaged as they do not share the same cultural capital of the dominant, higher class and therefore struggle when they get to school and, though some might achieve, the majority do not achieve at the same level as the children of the bourgeois.

There is a lot of data that backs up the idea that social class correlates with educational success. It can be argued quite convincingly that the higher class do best out of education. That bourgeois children are read to, go on foreign holidays, attend theatre, art galleries, ballet classes, play chess and and chuck around a rugby or net ball, probably more often than poorer children should come as no surprise. That these are the sorts of things that might see children fit in well/better at school than those who have experienced these pursuits less often might not be much of a surprise either. Thus the continuation of each class’ consciousness is kept in check, with the aspirant middle ‘petit bourgeois’ class trying to mimic as much as it can afford of the arbitrary cultural capital of the higher class.

“… the pedagogic action endowed with the dominant legitimacy, is nothing other than the arbitrary imposition of the dominant cultural arbitrary insofar as it is misrecognized in its objective truth as the dominant pedagogic action and the imposition of the dominant culture.” (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990, p. 22)

Far from teaching what Matthew Arnold referred to as ‘the best’, education, according to Bourdieu, imposes the arbitrary cultural values of the dominant culture. In his insistence in its arbitrariness Bourdieu’s argument is a relativistic one. The grand opera is no better than Boney M, except in that the bourgeois, in the UK, seem to say so. Even if your headphones reverberate to Ra Ra Rasputin more often than Puccini you are aware which is deemed more ‘posh’ or higher class.

Boney M

The newly reelected Prime-minister of the UK attended some of our most elite educational establishments. Imbued with cultural capital it is unsurprising that he reached the dizzying heights of high office, if not quite the role of ‘world king’ (yet).


All this would seem to support Bourdieu’s thesis. But there are some interesting figures from the recent election that might make the seemingly straightforward connection between dominant bourgeois class and education a bit more problematic. The times they maybe a-changin’.

In the UK the ‘posh’ party, the one that is thought to represent the higher class, is the Conservative Party. In the recent election one would expect that they would poll poorly with poorer voters and better with richer ones. The Labour Party, meanwhile, would be expected to do the opposite. The party of the working class would be expected to do better than the Conservatives amongst working class voters, but they didn’t.

According to You Gov this is “How Britain voted at the 2019 general election… by social grade

AB [Higher & intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations]
Con – 42%
Lab – 32%

C1 [Supervisory, clerical & junior managerial, administrative, professional occupations]
Con – 43%
Lab – 34%

C2 [Skilled manual occupations]
Con – 49%
Lab – 31%

DE [Semi-skilled & unskilled manual occupations, Unemployed and lowest grade occupations]
Con – 47%
Lab – 34%

Strong Conservative lead among all social grades”

One might expect to see the higher class, that is the one that is imbued with the cultural capital to keep its dominant position over all other classes, use education in such a way as to cement its position at the top of the hierarchy. The more educated someone is, therefore, the more likely they are to vote for the party that is traditionally associated with the higher class. This seems not to be true, You Gov, again:

How Britain voted at the 2019 general election… by education level

Low (GCSE or below)
Con – 58%
Lab – 25%
Lib Dem – 8%

Con – 48%
Lab – 31%
Lib Dem – 11%

High (degree or above)
Lab – 43%
Con – 29%
Lib Dem – 17%

The more educated someone was the more likely they were to vote Labour and Lib Dem (the more centrist ‘liberal’ party). Those who were least educated were most likely to vote Conservative.

The Labour Party is doing worse in all income brackets than the Conservatives but doing best with those who are educated to degree level or above. This leaves me with some questions: whose cultural capital is the education system set up to replicate and keep in a dominant position in our society? Was Bourdieu right about culture and class? Have things changed since his time and/or is France very different to the UK? I hope to look at these issues soon, in the meantime if you’d like to provide some answers I’d love to read what you have to say.

2 thoughts on “Whose Cultural Capital?

  1. I think you’re onto something fascinating here. Perhaps tying in with the Haidt’s writing and his Heterodox Academy.

    It strikes me that the dominant ideology in schools and universities is that of the Left. Why is that?

    It also seems to me that of the Left and Right it is far more likely that the Left will try to force their world view on others, or perhaps I’m wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The issue with comparing educational attainment and voting choice is that it doesn’t adjust for age. Of course Conservative voters will be “less educated”; the average voter age is much higher, while the opposite is true for Labour voters — education became ubiquitous in more recent years.

    A possibly better comparison is voting preference and IQ. In short, Conservative and Labour voters are equivalently “intelligent”, while BNP and UKIP voters score the lowest on IQ tests, and Lib Dems and Green voters score the highest, and by quite a bit.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s