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The Roots of Cultural Capital – and Is It Still Relevant to Education?

Cultural capital relates to the inherent value assigned to cultural knowledge and skills. In both education and life, it is thought cultural capital can bring advantages in various contexts.

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As a concept, cultural capital relates to the inherent value assigned to cultural knowledge and skills. In both education and life, cultural capital is thought to bring a range of advantages.

A term that has been around for decades, cultural capital was pioneered by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Widely used by sociologists, economists and educators, the theory suggests that people with greater cultural experiences are more likely to succeed in life. This holds true for education, where it is seen as a factor in determining educational achievement and opportunities.

 

Bourdieu’s Cultural Capital

Bourdieu’s theory proposes that, much like financial capital, cultural capital can be accumulated and invested. According to Bourdieu, it can be widely categorised into three forms: embodied, objectified and institutionalised.

  •         Embodied cultural capital. The cultural knowledge, skills and experiences that individuals have internalised and form part of their dispositions, habits and ways of thinking.
  •         Objectified cultural capital. The tangible forms that individuals can acquire and possess, such as books, artworks and other cultural objects.
  •         Institutionalised cultural capital. The cultural capital recognised and valued by institutions, such as schools and universities, that award degrees and qualifications.

 

The Relevance of Cultural Capital to Education

While the concept has been around for a long time, it only recently made it into the Ofsted agenda. The Ofsted Framework (2019) states:

As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.”

The framework describes cultural capital as the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”

The relevance to education lies in its impact on educational opportunities and outcomes. We can see cultural capital as the accumulation of knowledge, behaviours and skills that children can draw upon to be successful in their future lives, the world of work and society in general. Individuals who possess more significant capital are more likely to access better educational resources and benefit from them. Schools can offset some of this disparity by building students’ aspirations and providing access to diverse experiences.

 

A class of students admire a statue in a museum

 

Real-Life Scenarios

To help illustrate the impact of cultural capital on education, consider the following scenario. 

Jack grew up in a disadvantaged community where educational resources are limited. His parents didn’t have the opportunity to attend university, and he has limited exposure to cultural experiences outside his area. On the other hand, Emily grew up in a wealthy family where education and cultural experiences are highly valued. Emily has attended private schools, travelled extensively, and has been exposed to a wide range of cultural activities and events.

Regarding their educational opportunities and outcomes, Jack and Emily likely have very different experiences. Jack may need help accessing the resources and support he needs to succeed in education, whereas Emily is likely to have a much easier time.

This scenario highlights how a lack of cultural capital can create a barrier to social mobility. Schools may not be able to create total equity. However, they can try to ‘level the playing field’ by providing opportunities for disadvantaged children.

 

In Summary

The concept of cultural capital is a valuable tool for understanding the impact of culture and education on individuals and society. As education professionals, we must be aware of its role in educational opportunities and outcomes. By understanding this, we can work to ensure that all students have equal access to educational resources and support.

Teach HQ’s mission is to provide professionals with the resources to positively impact children, young people and the wider community. By empowering leaders with the knowledge they seek, we can create a more equitable and inclusive education system. 

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