Draft Literature Review: Adapting Capital

Sections: Introduction ->  What is Political Participation? -> The Causes of Political Participation ->  Inequality and Privilege -> Interim Observations ->  Privilege and Capital ->  Adapting Capital -> Reconciling Privilege and Political Participation ->  The Importance of Perception ->  Conclusion


There have, of course, been critiques of Bourdieu’s theories, not least stemming from those adhering to economically based definitions of class.

More relevant than those critiques, however, is an impressive work in which Bourdieu’s theories were applied to research into class in the United Kingdom, with the result that certain key adaptations to those theories were proposed. In Culture, Class, Distinction, Tony Bennett and colleagues set out three key questions:

Our first question . . . is to assess whether we can detect cultural capital in contemporary Britain, and if so, to delineate what form it takes.

. . .

Our second question . . . is whether different cultural fields, namely in the worlds of music, reading, art, television and film viewing, and sport are structured along similar principles, and if so, what is the nature of the similarities between them?

. . .

Our third question is to what extent we can see a process whereby established middle-class groups are advantaged by the organisation of cultural forms, and how similar processes inform the ordering and reproduction of the relations between genders and ethnic groups.[1]

In addressing those question they adopt a similar mix of research methods to Bourdieu to inform their description of the different British classes’ tastes and levels of participation in areas including music, print news, art, books, television, cinema, sport, clothing, and eateries.[2] Unsurprisingly, since the research is in a different country and at a different time, they find notably different cultural capital profiles, not least because new forms of entertainment such as television have become relevant.[3] Despite this, they retain the three-class model for the contemporary United Kingdom whilst noting some overlap between those classes.[4] Most importantly, they find differences in the structure of the cultural capital held by the various classes in contemporary Britain.

The first departure from Bourdieu is the in the identification of the decline in the power of legitimate culture in the United Kingdom.[5] It seems that the struggle to define the value of particular forms of cultural capital in the market has resulted in a situation in which the value of almost all forms is accepted, or at least not dismissed. In fact, the research repeatedly finds that people are keen to avoid the label of ‘snob’ and are thus hesitant to pass judgement on any form of cultural capital in which they are not interested.[6] There are some exceptions with, for instance, particular genres of music provoking strong positive or negative reactions but the trend towards, if not acceptance, then tolerance of diverse cultural forms prevails.[7] Thus, Bourdieu’s posited hierarchy of types of cultural capital is of less relevance with the value of capital varying with context. For instance, familial social capital is found to have continuing greater significance for working class people than for their middle or upper class counterparts and, to an extent, substitutes for the more confined cultural tastes and lower levels of cultural participation noted below.[8]

Extending the above, the second adaptation to Bourdieu that Bennett et al. identify relates to the diversity of cultural forms consumed. It seems that, beyond mere tolerance, it has become a badge of honour to maintain diverse tastes, leading to the emergence of the phenomenon of the ‘cultural omnivore’.[9] In fact, such wide-ranging cultural preferences seem to act as a new form of distinction; in contemporary Britain it is not important to be familiar with particular cultural forms but to know, like, and be comfortable with a large range of such forms.[10] This finding is suggestive of prioritisation of liberal values such as tolerance amongst classes that have begun to deprioritise economic concerns as they enter ‘postmaterialism’.[11] In fact, the extent of the phenomenon has led the authors to suggest that part of the reason for a decline in the distinctiveness of working class culture is that many components of it have been co-opted by middle and upper class cultural omnivores.[12] This is a significant break from Bourdieu’s findings, which identified a disinterested analytical approach to culture, rather than a willingness to engage in many cultural contexts, as the measure of distinction.[13] In fact, it seems that only one group in the contemporary United Kingdom has retained a cultured detachment from their consumption habits, namely the elite. The distinctiveness of the upper echelons is maintained by some cultural forms that have not diffused downwards, such as classical music and opera, though these are now the exceptions rather than the rule.[14]

Bennett et al. repeatedly find that an identifiable British elite breaks with the tenor of their observations, for instance regarding the declining importance of legitimate culture. This small group of senior people in various fields continues to consume cultural forms identified as markers of distinction by Bourdieu, as well as holding a more stringent information-focussed approach to newer forms of entertainment such as television.[15] The social circles in which such people move allow them to maintain their relationships with other members of the elite, potentially working in other organisations or sectors than themselves.[16] The fact that the elite seems to be identifiable and detached has important implications for the current research, especially since national politicians are likely to fall within that group.[17] If the upper echelons of society are particularly different from the majority of the population, and can be seen as such, this may detach them from the public and create barriers to engagement.

Notwithstanding the elites, it is wide-ranging cultural tastes that maintain distinction in the contemporary United Kingdom, though other patterns are also significant. In their third adaptation to Bourdieu, Bennett et al. note that the volume of participation in cultural activities outside the home is a key means by which to differentiate the classes.[18] Thus it is that, although they cannot be easily characterised with reference to particular cultural tastes, the middle and upper classes are more likely than the working classes to attend events and venues associated with their cultural interests.[19] In many instance the ability to participate reflects access to greater levels of economic capital but in all cases frequent participation helps to maintain cultural profiles.[20]

Building on the identification of changes in the structure of cultural preferences the next adaptation proposed by Bennett et al. is more fundamental. Noting that one of the major critiques of Bourdieu has been his failure to adequately account for the impact of gender, and that he was unable to consider the impact ethnicity due to data restrictions, they argue that other factors contribute extensively to the formation of cultural capital.[21] Throughout Class, Culture, Distinction, they find evidence that, whereas Bourdieu accommodated such factors within an overarching class analysis, gender, ethnicity, and age actually interact with class to create a diverse array of cultural capital profiles in the United Kingdom.[22] The significant impact of all these factors suggests the utility of adopting a concept, such as privilege, that can accommodate all of those relationships.

The replacement of class with privilege as the focus of research can also address the next adaptation to Bourdieu that Bennett et al. suggest. In recognising the complexity of the terrain of cultural capital in contemporary Britain, and accepting the role of a number of factors on that terrain, they provide the basis to critique the problem of class determinism.[23] Whilst Bourdieu challenged the economic determinism of Marxist theories it is class that retains a central role in his analysis. In particular he presented habitus not only as the possession of particular tastes in the various cultural fields but also as the homology between those tastes. That is to say, he posited that the structure of relations between classes is the same across all of the fields of cultural capital.[24] By contrast, their findings allow Bennett et al. to conclude:

While we find the notion of class habitus unhelpful, we agree with him [Bourdieu] that cultural proclivities are closely associated with social class; the three classes that we inductively generated from our cultural maps transcend particular occupational positions. This does not, however, produce exclusive, highly integrated and unified patterns of class behaviour; perhaps it is more useful to see classes as force fields, within the parameters of which individuals vary, though within limits.[25]

In rejecting the assertion of homology across the fields of cultural capital that comprise the habitus they are providing scope for individual choice. This adaptation to Bourdieu is crucial for the current research because it allows for the possibility that perceptions are a part of such individual choices.

To summarise, in Culture, Class, Distinction, Bennett et al. retain a fundamentally Bourdieusian analysis but make some important adaptations based on empirical observations that render his theories applicable to contemporary Britain. In answering their three motivating questions they find, first, that cultural capital does exist in that setting and that it varies across the classes. However, they find that the cultural capital profiles of the different classes are notably different from those observed in 1960s France. Crucially, in answering their second question, they find that there is a less deterministic relationship between fields of cultural capital than that posited by Bourdieu, thus challenging the assertion that they are homologous. Third, they find that the decline in the significance of legitimate culture has blurred the hierarchy of the classes in terms of cultural capital. Instead, those in the higher classes have a tendency to have become cultural omnivores, marked by their diverse tastes and frequent participation in an array of activities. Crucially, and also in answering their third question, they find that trends in cultural tastes and practices are not only structured by class but also by sex, race, and age.

In challenging Bourdieu’s overly-deterministic approach to the relationship between class and capital, Bennett et al. lay the foundations for the adoption of the broader concept of privilege by the current research. Privilege sits between the various identified background characteristics, as well as others, and the unequal societal outcomes with which they are associated. It encompasses the socialisation process by which different capital profiles are transmitted, and can be seen as the mechanism through which background characteristics are translated into advantage or disadvantage. Thus, privilege can accommodate the impact of class, sex, race, sexuality, age, religion, disability, and location as they influence the capital profile of each individual and thus the outcomes that are likely for them. This is adoption of privilege over class as the focus of the research is the first major departure from the Bourdieusian theory that informs it.

The second major departure from Bourdieu is in its focus on testing causality. As noted previously, Bourdieu adopts a highly descriptive approach and, in utilising correspondence analysis, focuses to a great degree on mapping the distribution of, and associations between, the forms of cultural capital. Of course, Bourdieu’s is a class analysis and, as such, fundamentally asserts a causal process leading from class to homologous profiles across the various fields of cultural capital. However, the focus of the work is not on testing or assessing that causal process but on describing its results. His use of survey data does not imply the testing of hypotheses and, in fact, it is almost deployed in a confirmatory manner.[26]

Similarly, although they recognise the importance of sex, race, and age alongside class in defining cultural profiles, Bennett et al. do not test those causal relationships. This thick descriptive approach stands in contrast to the highly detached approaches to assessing causality that are adopted by social science researchers who are more informed by practice in the discipline of economics. Such approaches, often deployed in analyses of inequality, tend to test the aggregate level impact of concepts such as supply and demand, or focus on economic calculations at the individual level.

Taking an approach that draws both on Bourdieu and contemporary social science the current research focuses on testing individual level causal processes. In particular, it is concerned with the process that runs from background characteristics through privilege to political participation. This is arguably a subversion of the Bourdieusian concepts of economic, social, and cultural capital. However, as outlined in the above section considering the literature that has adopted and tested those concepts, this will not be the first time that they have been put to that use. Crucially, it is also considered worthwhile to build on the rich and important descriptive work undertaken by Bourdieu and Bennett et al. by testing the causal impact of the processes that work through the forms of capital. This causal approach is much closer to that adopted by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady and outlined previously. Thus, this research is not concerned with the dispersion of capital per se, but with its origins and effects.

Despite the adoption of a different causal approach it remains the case that Bourdieu, as adapted by Bennett et al., provides the holistic theory of privilege that was lacking in the previously reviewed literature on the concept. In doing so it provides the first main focus for the current research; the link from privilege as it is embodied in the three forms of capital to political participation. This is posited to be a more illuminating relationship than that between background characteristics and political participation because privilege is more than merely a summary of those characteristics. The forms three forms of capital, which indicate privilege, are rich in detail and indicate the particular circumstances of each individual in a way that simply observing their background characteristics cannot. Habits, preferences, and understandings are undoubtedly affected by those characteristics but they also suggest how a person was brought up, and they encompass the key factors that were identified by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady as influencing political participation.

Sections: Introduction ->  What is Political Participation? -> The Causes of Political Participation ->  Inequality and Privilege -> Interim Observations ->  Privilege and Capital ->  Adapting Capital -> Reconciling Privilege and Political Participation ->  The Importance of Perception ->  Conclusion

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[1] Tony Bennett, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright, Culture, Class, Distinction (London, Routledge, 2009), pp. 12-14.

[2] Bennett et al., Culture, Class, Distinction, pp. 47-48, p. 76, pp. 90-93, p. 98, pp. 106-109, p. 114, p. 121, p. 132, p. 136, p. 140-141, p. 144, pp. 155-157, p. 162, pp. 164-166,

[3] Bennett et al., Culture, Class, Distinction, p. 254, p. 22, p. 132, p. 149.

[4] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 55.

[5] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 38, p. 56, p. 75, p. 205, p. 255.

[6] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 59, p. 70, p. 111, p. 186, p. 189, p. 194, p. 211, p. 256.

[7] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 79.

[8] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 71.

[9] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 18.

[10] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 88, p. 172, p. 194, p. 255.

[11] Ronald Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1997), p. 22, p. 35, p. 39.

[12] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 212.

[13] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 253.

[14] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 76, p. 84, pp. 189-190, p. 253.

[15] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, pp. 92-9, p. 135.

[16] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 90, p. 122, p. 190, p. 253.

[17] Hywel Williams, Britain’s Power Elites: The Rebirth of a Ruling Class (London, Constable, 2006), pp. 220-222; George Walden, The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses (London, The Penguin Press, 2000), pp. 206-207; Sue Cameron, The Cheating Classes: How Britain’s Elite Abuses their Power (London, Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 243-251.

[18] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 43.

[19] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 52, p. 114, p. 160, p. 168.

[20] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 140, p. 165.

[21] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 214, pp. 234-235.

[22] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, pp. 2-3, p. 43, pp. 52-53, p. 82, p. 105, p. 130, p. 133, p. 142, p. 147, p. 156, p. 160, p. 168, p. 171, p. 216, p. 221, p. 222, p. 237, p. 249.

[23] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 18, p. 27.

[24] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 470.

[25] Bennett et al., Class, Culture, Distinction, p. 252.

[26] Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 78-79, p. 202, p. 241, pp. 245-246, pp. 265-270, pp. 374-379.


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