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.
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.
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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