Draft Literature Review: Reconciling Privilege and 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


Both Voice and Equality and the complementary work on the representation of wealthy constituents interests and opinions were based on research conducted in the United States of America. Whether those findings translate to the context of contemporary Britain is a question that the current research hopes to shed some light on. The civic voluntarism model, however, is not made explicitly relevant to the concept of privilege that is argued to be of particular significance in the United Kingdom. This suggests the utility of reconciling the two major approaches that have been drawn on so far. This will allow the current research to identify the three forms of capital as the mechanisms through which privilege works but, at the same time, adopt the causal approach and focus on political participation of the civic voluntarism model. Thus, it is necessary, reasonable, and intuitively satisfying to reconcile Verba, Schlozman, and Brady’s model with Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of economic, social, and cultural capital.

First, Bourdieu’s economic capital clearly encompasses the money component of Verba, Schlozman, and Brady’s concept of resources. Of course, and as noted previously, money does not come only from income but also from wealth (i.e. a stock of assets that is exchangeable into money or provides earnings), which also contributes to unequal outcomes.[1] Thus, economic capital is here taken to be an amalgamation of wealth and income, and to include the money component of the concept of resources from the civic voluntarism model. It is also taken to incorporate the time component of resources, though it is a more unusual component in terms of its relationship with background characteristics. Time is structured along different lines from income and wealth, and has interesting relationships with each. Increasing income may be negatively related to free time if it is the result of more work but positively related to an increase in wealth if it implies that income from work becomes less critical. Time is also arguably heavily related to family structure, with traditional divides in housework and child rearing being based on gender.[2] Thus, whilst time is marked by its relationships with the other components of economic capital, the nature of those relationships is complex.

The influence of background characteristics on economic capital is apparent; its transfer from one generation to another is likely to sustain that structures that existed in the previous generation. By definition, wealth that is transferred to children from parents remains in the hands of those with the same or similar background characteristics. At the same time, the persistence of income differences between groups, in part due to time constraints imposed by factors such as housework and child rearing, complements wealth transfer in structuring economic capital by background characteristics.

Second, Bourdieu’s cultural capital encompasses the bulk of the components of the model presented in Voice and Equality. Civic skills, which stem from education (itself a key component of cultural capital) and ongoing engagement with employment and voluntary contexts, both enable participation and act as a qualification to do so. They are also likely to deliver the kind of self-assured manner in a political setting that Bourdieu identified. Thus, civic skills both enable individuals to participate and mark them out as able to others. Similarly, the components of engagement act as cultural qualifications that incline those who possess them to political activity and suggest to others that they are competent to do so. Being interested in politics, believing that one can effectively engage with the political system, and holding political information are signifiers of political competence that assure the self and others. Party identification is less necessary for political participation and despite its well-documented decline remains widespread, perhaps because of its utility in the most prevalent form of political participation, voting.[3] Nevertheless, party identification is here taken to be part of cultural capital along with the other components of engagement, civic skills, and Bourdieu’s originally posited cultural tastes, habits, and activities. Crucially, all of these element share a common origin in that they stem from socialisation. This concept is of wide significance but is particularly relevant to cultural capital, and can be defined as:

“the process by which persons acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that make them more or less able members of their society” (Brim 1966, p. 3). Socialization does not include all formative processes experienced by individuals. It is limited to those associated with acquired characteristics (and thus it excludes qualities evolving through biological maturation) which have social significance (and thus excludes individual differences that are not systematically relevant to social functioning).[4]

It is socialisation that, as Verba, Schlozman, and Brady note, functions both in early years and in impressionable adolescence, transferring cultural capital between generations, to form Bourdieu’s habitus.[5] It may be less homologous than he posited but it encompasses patterns in civic skills and engagement that are structured, through socialisation, by background characteristics.

Finally, Bourdieu’s approach to social capital is notably different from that famously adopted by Robert Putnam when documenting the decline in aggregate levels of social participation in the United States.[6] Bourdieu’s definition focuses on who individuals know and, implicitly, what they can expect from those relationships. It is relatively easy to reconcile this with Verba, Schlozman, and Brady’s concept of recruitment if it is accepted that social capital also relates to the requests that are likely to come from the people who one knows. This is not a great leap; different acquaintances will have different habits of their own so requests for participation will differ depending on who one knows. This means that, like the social capital that they stem from, requests are structured by background characteristics.[7] Thus, social capital is here taken to be not only the number of social connections that one has but also the status of the people to whom one has connections, and the strength of those connections based on what can be expected of them.

The maintenance of that structuring through the transfer of social capital between generations is easily comprehended; parents can offer introductions to fellow members of organisations, family friends, or colleagues. At a less explicit but more fundamental level the parental role in choosing schools, supporting extra-curricular activities, and, in some cases, vetoing friendships all play a part in defining the social networks in which people find themselves. The social skills developed in those networks then influence the networks that develop once one strikes out and leaves home, not least if one attends university (which is, again, a decision often influenced by parents).

To summarise, it is relatively simple to reconcile the civic voluntarism model proposed by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady with the three forms of capital proposed by Bourdieu. For ease of reference Table 2, presented below, maps the components of the former onto the latter. This exercise is critical for the current research because it reconciles work on the key concepts of privilege and political participation by positing a path that leads from background characteristics through inheritance, socialisation, and networks to the economic, cultural, and social capital, which encompass resources, engagement, and recruitment as proposed in the civic voluntarism model.


Table 2 – Mapping the Civic Voluntarism Model onto the Three Forms of Capital

 2014-09-25 Draft Literature Review Table 2

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] Atkinson, The Economics of Inequality, pp. 157-167; Pfeffer and Hällsten, ‘Mobility Regimes and Parental Wealth’, p. 21.

[2] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 291-294; Bennett et al. Culture, Class, Distinction, pp. 60-61.

[3] Mair and van Biezen, ‘Party Membership in Twenty European Democracies’, pp. 5-21.

[4] Kerckhoff, ‘Family Position, Peer Influences, and Schooling’, p. 94.

[5] M. Kent Jennings, ‘Political Socialization’, in Dalton and Klingemann, The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior, pp. 29-44.

[6] Robert D. Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 65-78.

[7] Jan E. Leighley, ‘Attitudes, Opportunities and Incentives: A Field Essay on Political Participation’, Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 181-209, pp. 189-191.


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