Draft Literature Review: Privilege and 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


Theories relating to the workings of inherited advantage or disadvantage are numerous and have extended to account for the workings of privilege over the whole course of human history.[1] The goal here, however, is to seek an overarching theory of the mechanisms of privilege in modern society. In that light it is useful to refer to the impressive work of Pierre Bourdieu, who posited that privilege works through three forms of capital that can be held by individuals:

capital can present itself in three fundamental guises: as economic capital, which is immediately and directly convertible into money and may be institutionalized in the form of property rights; as cultural capital, which is convertible, on certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of educational qualification; and as social capital, made up of social obligations (“connections”), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of a title or nobility.[2]

The above provides a concise summary of Bourdieu’s approach to capital but his work is extensive and rich enough to warrant more in-depth consideration. In particular, his seminal work, Distinction, is full of fascinating thick description of the cultural capital possessed by people of different classes in 1960s France. Based on a mix of sources including survey data, interviews, and photographs, the description of his subjects encompasses their musical tastes, artistic preferences, choice of literature, home decoration, trips to the theatre and cinema, food preferences and body shape, clothing and appearance, favoured sports, use of language and speech patterns, and choice of newspaper.[3] In each of these areas there are ‘legitimate’, ‘middle-brow’, and ‘popular’ tastes, which are more or less widespread and accessible.[4]

Beyond the presentation of detailed descriptive content Bourdieu used Distinction to posit a cultural market in which there is competition not only to obtain capital but also to define which capital is most legitimate.[5] This competition is partly an effort to obtain the best rates for the cultural capital held when exchanging it into economic capital, but also to assert the opposition between cultural capitals and superiority of some forms over others.[6] This struggle for superiority is a manifestation of the class struggle that motivated Bourdieu’s work, and it led to an original conception of class relations. He posited that class is not defined only in economic terms but also in relation to the other two forms of capital, though the cultural form was the focus of Distinction. The introduction of these other elements of class allowed him to expand upon purely economic definitions of the concept as posited by Karl Marx.[7]

Bourdieu’s analysis included additional complexity because he focussed not only on the volume but also the composition of capital that was held by different classes.[8] This theory was well suited to the correspondence analysis that he undertook, which allowed him to differentiate between fractions within the dominant and dominated classes. Amongst the bourgeoisie he profiled the cultural and economic distinctions between old industrialists and new entrepreneurs.[9] Similarly, within the middle class he distinguished between the professionals and the petty bourgeoisie, and even within the working class between more and less politically aware fractions.[10] Thus he maintained the division between the dominant and the dominated classes and, at the same time, accommodated the complexity of relations within them by positing that fractions vie for dominance over each other. He also accepted that other structural factors such as sex, age, and location could affect the capital held by individuals, though such factors were accommodated within the overarching analysis of class competition.[11] Thus, for Bourdieu, social class is not defined by a single property ‘but by the structure of relations between all the pertinent properties which gives its specific value to each of them and to the effects they exert on practices.’[12]

Bourdieu’s focus on the structure of relations between the volume and composition of capital held by different classes was expressed through his proposition of the concept of habitus, in which ‘all the practices and products of a given agent are objectively harmonized among themselves, without any deliberate pursuit of coherence, and objectively orchestrated, without any conscious concertation, with those of all members of the same class.’[13] Since it is an original concept that was developed by Bourdieu, it is useful to give two examples of how he applied it, in this instance in relation to the different manners of classes in their homes. For him, the bourgeoisie expresses:

a habitus of order, restraint, and propriety which may not be abdicated. . . . It is also a whole relationship to animal nature, to primary needs and the populace who indulge them without restraint; it is a way of denying the meaning and primary function of consumption, which are essentially common.[14]

By contrast, the working class habitus stands for:

sincerity, for feeling, for what is felt and proved in actions; it is the free-speech and language of the heart which make the true “nice guy”, blunt, straightforward, unbending, honest, genuine, “straight down the line” and “straight as a die”, as opposed to everything that is pure form, done only for form’s sake; it is freedom and the refusal of complications, as opposed to respect for all the forms and formalities spontaneously perceived as instruments of distinction and power.[15]

For the sake of clarity, and since it is a complex concept, habitus is here understood to be the totality of and connections between all of the habits, preferences, and understandings possessed by virtue of being socialised into a particular class.

One of the key means by which such socialisation occurs is education, which Bourdieu describes as institutionalised or formalised cultural capital.[16] Education is thus a means by which to transmit advantage and, as such, is closely linked to background.[17] The possession of advantage resulting from education can lead to a sense of qualification to engage with topics such as politics,[18] which is of particular relevance to the current research. Crucially, the sense of qualification to talk on topics is part of a wider confidence that is imbued by the transmission of cultural capital through both formal and informal means. Such confidence is expressed in relation not just to politics but in a whole host of settings in which ‘[i]t confers the self-certainty which accompanies the certainty of possessing cultural legitimacy, and the ease which is the touchstone of excellence’.[19] This ease is communicated not only through words but also a manner of being:

What is learnt through immersion in a world in which legitimate culture is as natural as the air one breathes is a sense of the legitimate choice so sure that it convinces by the sheer manner of the performance, like a successful bluff.[20]

Such confidence is linked not only to one’s habitus but also to the trajectory that results from the current combination of capital, and people are additionally classified by whether they are seen to have upward mobility.[21] In fact, part of the competition between classes is around the creation of high status jobs that fit the capital profiles, including educational qualifications, of their members to ensure that their trajectory is positive.[22]

To summarise, Bourdieu’s work in Distinction, which is commonly cited as one of the most important books of twentieth century sociology,[23] presents a complex and original theory of class. He posits that it is about more than mere economics and proposes that the market in which the classes compete is based around the volume and composition of both economic and cultural capital (with social capital considered subsequently). Thus, whilst accepting the fundamental divide between dominant and dominated classes, he describes the contending factions of the bourgeoisie, the middle class, and the working class. From that description he develops a new concept, habitus, to summarise the relationship between all of the habits, preferences, and understandings possessed by each class. Habitus is linked to future status through trajectory and is communicated through, amongst other things, formal educational qualifications and a general sense of confidence. Crucially, he achieves all of the preceding based on a rich descriptive account of class in 1960s France that draws on a range of quantitative and qualitative data. As such, in addition to his engaging, powerful, and important theoretical contributions, Bourdieu can be seen as an early proponent of mixed methods research.[24]

Focussing on his theoretical importance, Bourdieu’s impact has been reflected in the extent of the literature related to the three forms of capital. Recent research has utilised impressive survey and census data to show that economic capital in the form of parental wealth is at least equal in significance to parental income in affecting children’s educational attainment and future occupations.[25] It is posited that wealth provides an insurance function allowing children to make riskier educational decisions such as choosing long or expensive courses without concern for the costs of failure.[26] The findings apply across mobility regimes characterised by the different educational, social welfare, and redistributive systems in the United States, Germany and Sweden.[27] In the United Kingdom, wealth is related to an array of important outcomes including infant mortality, educational attainment, anxiety levels, obesity rates, alcohol and tobacco consumption, drug use, and life expectancy.[28] The importance of wealth in influencing outcomes also relates to government policy towards job creation and social services, which it has been argued should complement local community action.[29]

Social capital stemming from privilege has been identified most explicitly in the transition from school to university. In the United States elite schools lobby through well established links with university admissions offices to ensure that the playing field is tilted in favour of their students even when they are not the best qualified candidates.[30] The children of alumni also receive preferential treatment in admissions to elite universities, a phenomenon referred to as the ‘legacy preference’.[31] This suggests that social capital is something that can function in the interests of those who hold it without action on their part. Nonetheless survey research has illustrated that the children of high status parents can be quite aware of the social capital that they possess.[32] At the other end of the spectrum, it has been argued that the dislocation associated with large council estates in Britain destroyed working class communities by removing social capital embodied in traditional family networks.[33] In fact, more recent work has also shown that relocation resulting from urban regeneration projects can also have negative effects by removing people from their established social networks.[34]

Recent research based on impressive official records in Denmark has convincingly demonstrated the power of social connections in relation to voting. A special edition of the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties included work that showed the lower likelihood of turning out associated with leaving home before the habit of voting, inherited from parents, has taken hold.[35] This decline in voting amongst young people is also associated with later maturation; young people are leaving education, getting married, and having children later. This means that they are less settled in one location and, in part because of the social networks that they are therefore part of, less likely to vote.[36] At the other end of the age scale, people are found to ‘retire’ from voting as their social networks decline with old age.[37] The effects of social connections on turnout are not restricted to youth and old age, and evidence also suggests that discussing politics with non-voters who communicate their scepticism or uncertainty about voting impacts negatively on one’s own likelihood of turning out.[38] Social connections and pressure can also work to promote turnout, as demonstrated in a fascinating field experiment that found that the prospect of having one’s choice of whether or not to vote made public significantly raised turnout.[39] That research is complemented by evidence that voting is contagious within households, and that personal connections are more important in mobilisation than are remote messages.[40] All of the preceding serves to emphasise the importance of social connections in political participation. Thus, social capital, in the form of who one knows, what their statuses are, and how strong the connections are, has important implications for life outcomes in general and political participation in particular.

As indicated by the length and complexity of Distinction, cultural capital is perhaps the least easy to succinctly define of the three forms, which has lead to criticism of the varied operationalisation of the concept.[41] Further it has been argued that levels of cultural capital when entering education have no effect on subsequent attainment.[42] Such arguments have not deterred the literature from focussing on the role of the educational context in reproducing and measuring cultural capital. It has been argued that ‘choice of school appears as the one real chance that parents get to structure a significant slice of socialisation beyond the home.’[43] In that vein, research has illustrated that even when middle-class parents go ‘against the grain’[44] by choosing urban schooling for their children, they do so with specific goals in mind. These may be educational, for instance to instil a work ethic, or more broadly experiential, for instance to gain diverse cultural experiences in a moderated environment.[45]

Those parents who do choose to send their children to private school may focus on the material benefits such as better facilities, more highly qualified teachers, smaller class sizes, the array of extra-curricular activities, and better results and prospects for university entrance.[46] At a less tangible level, they may hope that such schools will build their children’s character, instil discipline in them, and generally ‘polish’ them in preparation for their future lives.[47] Hence academic qualifications can represent more than ability in certain fields, indicating that children have been socialised to be motivated and to understand the requirements of their role in any given context.[48] Beyond school, ‘[a] college degree confirms that the graduate is a responsible, diligent member of society who knows how to conform to its requirements.’[49] Alternatively, for those without the privilege of attending university or ‘good’ schools, the educational system can prove alienating as ‘middle-class teachers operate a whole series of linguistic and cultural controls which are “dissonant” with those of [their] family and peers, but whose mastery is implicitly defined as the index of intelligence and achievement’.[50] Further, privileged students who conform to the ‘mainstream’ academic culture may behave disparagingly towards a lack of privilege that can manifest itself in delinquency.[51]

The importance of cultural capital extends beyond the confines of formal education, for instance into consumption habits. It has been argued that rising general wealth leads to ‘[t]he eclipse of “waste” by “taste”’[52] as the privileged demonstrate their cultural superiority through consumption of particular brands with associated images. This re-establishes or reinforces control of cultural signifiers including habits and brands because ability to consume excessively loses its value.[53] At the same time, on a less material level, higher levels of education are also positively related to interest in politics and participation in political activity.[54] Interestingly, and as with social capital, children of high status parents are often aware of the impact that family background has on consumption habits.[55]

As noted in passing above, Bourdieu also identifies the link from education to a sense of entitlement to express political opinions. That observation, however, is only part of his assessment of the role of cultural capital in individuals’ approaches to politics and, in fact, he gives over a section in Distinction to the topic. In it he suggests political opinions and issue positions, for instance on policies relating to minimum wages and accommodation for the working classes, are based on class position.[56] Further, and more fundamental than opinion, he argues that an inclination towards political engagement itself is a facet of the middle-class habitus.[57] The importance of class can be seen in the domination of politics by those who speak using a particular style and, in so doing, demonstrate their political qualifications.[58] The dominance of the political style of expression means that even representatives of the working classes, such as those who rise through the ranks of trades unions, end up being detached from the class that they came from.[59] This detachment is such that ‘[a]bstentionism is perhaps not so much a hiccup in the system as one of the conditions of its functioning as a misrecognized – and therefore recognized – restriction on political participation.’[60] Further, the requisite manner of performance in politics acts as a structural barrier to political participation in which those outside politics hold :

suspicion of the political “stage”, a “theatre” whose rules are not understood and which leaves ordinary taste with a sense of helplessness, [and which] is often the sources of “apathy” and of a generalized distrust of all forms of speech and spokesmen.[61]

In summary, Bourdieu’s seminal work suggests the importance of cultural tastes, habits, and consumption patterns, as well as social networks, alongside that of economic capital. He argues that those three forms of capital are exchangeable but that their distribution is heavily defined by the ongoing struggle between classes and the fractions within them. The defining role of class means that there are homologies between the different types of each of the three forms of capital, which come together to form the habitus of each class and fraction. The habitus is manifested in behavioural patterns and, as such, the three forms of capital act as the mechanism through which background characteristics such as class are translated into unequal societal outcomes, including in relation to political participation. Thus, Bourdieu presents a convincing account of the workings of privilege, the importance of which has been reflected in the extensive empirical work relating to the impact of economic, social, and cultural 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

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[1] Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 435-443.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Forms of Capital’, in John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood Press, 1986), pp. 241-258, p. 243.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 19-21, p. 28, pp. 32-34, p. 43, pp. 54-60, pp. 185-196, pp. 201-206, pp. 217, , p. 226, p. 255, p. 270, pp. 274-278, pp. 288-290, pp. 298-301, pp. 324-325, pp. 334-336, pp. 346-351, pp. 355-357, pp. 391-393, pp. 413-414, pp. 444-449.

[4] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 1, p. 16, pp. 359-360.

[5] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 93, p. 250, pp. 327-328.

[6] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 134, p. 147, p. 149, pp. 176-177, p. 196, p. 218, p. 220, p. 231, p. 246, p. 273, p. 311, p. 395, pp. 450-451.

[7] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 224, p. 226; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1948), pp. 13-26.

[8] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 120.pp. 128-129.

[9] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 218, p. 254, p. 270, pp. 305-309

[10] Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 327-328, 341-342, pp. 346-352, p. 396.

[11] Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 382-383, p. 458.

[12] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 106.

[13] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 173.

[14] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 196.

[15] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 199.

[16] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 23, p. 387.

[17] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 1, p. 105.

[18] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 409.

[19] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 66; see also p. 252.

[20] Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 91-92.

[21] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 110, p. 134, p. 206, p. 346.

[22] Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 155-156, pp. 333-337, pp. 358-359, p. 387.

[23] ‘Books of the Century’, International Sociological Association, 2007, viewed at http://www.isa-sociology.org/books/alfa/booksa_b.htm on 29.08.2013.

[24] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 147.

[25] Fabian T. Pfeffer and Martin Hällsten, ‘Mobility Regimes and Parental Wealth: The United States, Germany, and Sweden in Comparison’, Population Studies Center Research Report, No. 12-766, p. 21, viewed at http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/pubs/pdf/rr12-766.pdf on 27.08.2012.

[26] Pfeffer and Hällsten, ‘Mobility Regimes and Parental Wealth’, pp. 5-9; Atkinson, The Economics of Inequality, pp. 106-111.

[27] Pfeffer and Hällsten, ‘Mobility Regimes and Parental Wealth’, pp. 2-5.

[28] Eric Midwinter, ‘Age and Inequality’, in Geoff Dench (ed.), The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 109-115, pp. 110-112.

[29] Yvonne Roberts, ‘Marginalised Young Men’, in Dench, The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy, pp. 97-104, pp. 97-100; Michelynn Lafléche, ‘Face, Race and Place, Merit and Ethnic Minorities’, in Dench, The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy, pp. 90-96, p. 94; Pattillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences, p. 208.

[30] Caroline Hodges Persell and Peter W. Cookson Jr., ‘Chartering and Bartering: Elite Education and Social Reproduction’, Social Problems, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Dec., 1985), pp. 114-129.

[31] John Larew, ‘Why are Droves of Unqualified, Underprepared Kids Getting into our Top Colleges? Because Their Dads Are Alumni’, in Kimmel and Ferber, Privilege, pp. 135-144.

[32] John E. Hughes, ‘The Perception of the Influence of Parental Occupational Prestige’, The American Catholic Sociological Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring, 1961), pp. 39-49.

[33] Phil Cohen, ‘Subcultural conflict and working-class community’, in Hall, Culture, Media, Language, pp. 78-87.

[34] Anne Power and Helen Willmot, ‘Social Capital Within the Neighbourhood’, Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion (London School of Economics and Political Science), CASEreport 38 (Jun., 2007), viewed at http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/cr/CASEreport38.pdf on 25.10.2013.

[35] Yosef Bhatti and Kasper M. Hansen, ‘Leaving the Nest and the Social Act of Voting: Turnout among First-Time Voters’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 2012), pp. 380-406.

[36] Kaat Smets, ‘A Widening Generational Divide? The Age Gap in Voter Turnout Through Time and Space’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 2012), pp. 407-430.

[37] Yosef Bhatti and Kasper M. Hansen, ‘Retiring from Voting: Turnout among Senior Voters’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 2012), pp. 479-500.

[38] Julia Partheymüller and Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck, ‘A “Social Logic” of Demobilization: The Influence of Political Discussants on Electoral Participation at the 2009 German Federal Election’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 2012), pp. 457-478.

[39] Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green and Christopher W. Larimer, ‘Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 102, no. 1 (Feb., 2008), pp. 33-48.

[40] David W. Nickerson, ‘Is Voting Contagious? Evidence from Two Field Experiments’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 102, No. 1 (Feb., 2008), pp. 49-57; Daryl J. Bem, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs (Belmont, CA, Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1970), pp. 75-77.

[41] Paul W. Kingston, ‘The Unfulfilled Promise of Cultural Capital Theory’, Sociology of Education, Vol. 74, Extra Issue: Current of Thought: Sociology of Education at the Dawn of the 21st Century (2001), pp. 88-99.

[42] Kingston, ‘The Unfulfilled Promise of Cultural Capital Theory’, pp. 88-99.

[43] Diane Reay, Gill Crozier and David James, White Middle-Class Identities and Urban Schooling (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 19, p. 21.

[44] Reay, Crozier and James, White Middle-Class Identities and Urban Schooling, p. 29.

[45] Reay, Crozier and James, White Middle-Class Identities and Urban Schooling, pp. 31-42, pp. 166-167.

[46] Geoffrey Walford, Privatization and Privilege in Education (London, Routledge, 1990), pp. 44-55.

[47] Walford, Privatization and Privilege in Education, pp. 42.

[48] Alan C. Kerckhoff, ‘Family Position, Peer Influences, and Schooling’, in Richardson, Handbook of Theory and Research in the Sociology of Education, pp. 93-112, p. 109.

[49] Peter Marris, ‘Just Rewards: Meritocracy Fifty Years Later’, in Dench, The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy, pp. 157-162, p. 159.

[50] Cohen, ‘Subcultural conflict and working-class community’, in Hall, Culture, Media, Language, p. 86.

[51] Reay, Crozier and James, White Middle-Class Identities and Urban Schooling, p. 143; Pattillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences, pp. 212-213; Cohen, ‘Subcultural conflict and working-class community’, in Hall, Culture, Media, Language, p. 86.

[52] Alan Shipman, ‘Lauding the Leisure Class: Symbolic Content and Conspicuous Consumption’, Review of Social Economy, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 277-289, p. 280.

[53] Shipman, ‘Lauding the Leisure Class’, pp. 283-288.

[54] Jim Ogg, ‘A Brief Profile of the New British Establishment’, in Dench, The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy, pp. 81-89, pp. 84-85.

[55] Hughes, ‘The Perception of the Influence of Parental Occupational Prestige’, pp. 44-45.

[56] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 418, pp. 431-432.

[57] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 419.

[58] Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 413-414, pp. 343-344.

[59] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 417, p. 424, p. 462.

[60] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 398.

[61] Bourdieu, Distinction, pp. 464-465.


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