FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Capital, Power and Class

In an October 6, 2005 op-ed in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks notes that “life prospects are widely unequal” for children coming from families in different income brackets. As would be expected, children from lower-income families are much less likely to get a college degree than children from higher-income families.

Brooks attempts to explain this situation by reference to “cultural inequality,” suggesting that as “the information age matures,” it is differences in cultural capital, rather than economic class that are responsible for increasing economic inequality and social stratification. In his words:

The new inequality is different from the old inequality. Today, the rich don’t exploit the poor, they just outcompete them. Their crucial advantage is not that they possess financial capital, it’s that they possess more cultural capital.

The notion of cultural capital is a relatively complex sociological concept introduced by the late Pierre Bourdieu, one of the great social theorists of the twentieth century. Brooks mischaracterizes and vulgarizes the concept of cultural capital, using it to individualize a complicated social problem and eliminate discussion of the economic basis of class.

Forms of capital

Brooks correctly notes that many students have trouble fitting in and succeeding in college, a problem he attributes to an individual deficit in what he calls the four pillars of cultural capital: academic and practical competence, and economic and social confidence.

For Brooks, the issue is quite simple — increase the confidence and competence of children from less-educated families, so they may compete “with an open field and fair chance.”

Bourdieu is likely turning in his grave as Brooks uses the concept of cultural capital to downplay the operation of power, in service of the idea of an open playing field. For Bourdieu, the world is constituted by the unequal distribution of power and struggle. Individuals exist in a multidimensional social space, what Bourdieu calls fields of power, where power exists as different forms of capital — economic, social and cultural.

In addition to economic capital as traditionally understood, individuals may accumulate social and cultural capital. Social capital consists of the resources that flow from relationships one has with others, including social networks, group membership, and the power of knowing important people. George W. Bush is a quintessential example of someone rich in social capital; also consider Harriet Miers, whose nomination to the Supreme Court is largely based on personal connections rather than experience.

Cultural capital is a bit more complex, referring to dispositions, habits, and ways of knowing, understanding and acting. Cultural capital is closely connected with information, such as knowing how to act in particular situations or how to consume, appreciate, or use particular objects (e.g., art or computers).

For Bourdieu, what is perhaps most important is that these forms of capital are all social relations between individuals and their environments. Importantly, these environments — institutions of education, politics, et cetera — are constructed by the powerful to differentiate insiders from outsiders by favoring particular types of capital.

Individuals are successful in particular environments because they possess particular types of capital or resources that are suited to these environments, in part because these types of capital are relatively rare. The powerful maintain their positions by limiting access to these positions to those who possess uncommon types of capital.

Thus the matter cannot be reduced to a focus on endowing individuals with more capital. Students from elite families tend to do better in college because elites have been through, and played important roles in shaping institutions of higher education.

As Bourdieu observed, individuals with identical economic investments (time, preparation, money) in their educational future differ in the profits they receive from these investments ­ differences above and beyond any differences stemming from natural abilities.

Even individuals of the same intellectual ability in the same educational institutions will “profit” differently from similar levels of effort. This is because they have cultural dispositions and informational resources that are superior given the existing institutions.

And here’s the clincher: cultural capital is not something that can be easily learned or transferred. Dispositions and ways of understanding are deeply ingrained through years of socialization.

 

Same “old” inequality

While Brooks does broach important issues of cultural capital, he hardly understands the implications of these issues. Like economic capital, cultural capital is a resource that is used by elites to maintain their power.

Cultural capital can’t simply be given to less fortunate individuals and families any more than financial resources can be simply distributed even across the population, because existing institutions and power structures depend on an unequal distribution of such resources.

Brooks’s prescription of increasing the competence and confidence of students from lesser-educated families mostly concerns issues that economists have always discussed under the label of human capital: students should buckle down, investing time in studying and money in education, and institutions should be designed to encourage such behavior.

So why does Brooks dress these rather traditional ideas — and the tired old trope about leveling the playing field — up in fancy new language about cultural capital? Because this concept, appropriately bastardized, serves to individualize problems in educational achievement and social inequality while disavowing any role of economic class.

The issues that Brooks raises, particularly academic competence and economic confidence, are inextricably bound up with issues of economic class, as is cultural capital more generally. Individual ability and achievement, as well as dispositions and information, are shaped in key ways by one’s economic position.

Families with few economic resources can devote less time and money to their children’s education and have access to different cultural resources than the more well off. Poor families are less likely to have social as well as cultural capital that can effectively aid economic mobility.

Ultimately, the point Brooks misses is that most complex social systems are constituted by power imbalances and we cannot eliminate these power differentials without transforming the systems themselves.

As long as our society remains capitalist, those without control of productive resources will continue to be exploited by those who do control them, and position in the class structure will continue to have a powerful effect on cultural and social resources and ability and achievement in education and life.

There are many institutional changes that can be made to improve our educational systems. In general, the best approach would be social investment through public funding and administration of educational institutions. This is the only way to assure that standards and resources are universally ratcheted up, so that all students have equal access to quality education, regardless of economic, cultural or social resources.

But if the goal is to substantially reduce economic and social inequality, then we have to directly attack the sources and structures of power. Individualized approaches like Brooks’s — especially ones that do not address the poverty and millions of shitty jobs created by the capitalist economy in “the information age” — will leave structures of inequality largely intact.

MATT VIDAL is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLARIFICATION

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH

We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005

 

More articles by:

Matt Vidal is Senior Lecturer in Work and Organizations at King’s College London, Department of Management. He is editor-in-chief of Work in Progress, a public sociology blog of American Sociological Association, where this article first ran. You can follow Matt on Twitter @ChukkerV.

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail