The changing currency of ‘cultural capital’

The English schools inspectors are apparently looking for schools to teach ‘cultural capital’. But what does cultural capital mean, and how is it changing?


It’s now a full year since Ofsted, the UK schools inspectorate, incorporated the notion of ‘cultural capital’ in its inspection framework. Several commentators were surprised by the sudden appearance of the term, not least because it derives from the work of a noted left-wing sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu – an unlikely inspiration for Ofsted and its political masters. Several blogs attempted to explain the term (a couple of the most useful can be found here and here), but few have taken much notice of more contemporary research on the issue.

For neoconservative commentators, ‘cultural capital’ seems to function as a kind of alternative or addition to the notion of ‘knowledge’ – as in the ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’. It’s possible that its appearance is down to little more than the slip of a civil servant’s keyboard: it may have seemed like an attractively hard-nosed, economistic variation on E.D. Hirsch’s notion of ‘cultural literacy’.

Let’s begin by looking at what the Ofsted Inspection Handbook has to say. Cultural capital merits a short paragraph in the lengthy section explaining how ‘quality in education’ will be assessed. It reads as follows:

As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Our understanding of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ is derived from the following wording in the national curriculum:

‘It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

This seems somewhat circular: education needs to equip people with cultural capital, and cultural capital is what educated people possess. Yet on the face of it, it’s hardly contentious.

Pierre Bourdieu (not Matthew Arnold, or Michael Gove)

However, like ‘knowledge’, cultural capital seems to have become a coded term in the lexicon of neoconservative thinking about education. One thing that’s notable herein this quotation is the embedded (and unattributed) reference to Matthew Arnold: cultural capital is about ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (a formulation from his book Culture and Anarchy, published in 1867). Arnold was a particular favourite of the former Education Minister Michael Gove, whose defining influence on education policy is particularly apparent here.

As Barbara Bleiman argues, Gove and his followers typically conflate ‘cultural capital’ with their vision of the traditional education that used to be provided by leading private schools and elite universities. In fact, the kind of curriculum most universities now provide in subjects like English or History is quite different from that of the neoconservative imagination; and there is some indication that private schools may also be taking a much more contemporary approach.

There is also an assumption here that working-class children are lacking in this kind of cultural capital, because of the limitations of their home background; and that teachers need to provide it if such children are to ‘succeed in life’, as Ofsted puts it. According to the neoconservatives, educational ‘experts’ have deliberately sought to deny disadvantaged children access to such cultural experiences, on the grounds of a kind of cultural relativism (or alternatively, because they are all ‘Marxists’). Neoconservatives like Katharine Birbalsingh aim to give children access to ‘Western civilization’ (as though this were a singular and unchanging thing) – as compared with the progressivists, whom they accuse of being entirely hostile to it. Unfortunately, these are the kinds of simplistic caricatures that are feeding the ‘culture wars’ of contemporary educational debate.


I seriously doubt whether Gove or anybody in Ofsted has actually read Bourdieu. Even so, it’s worth looking at the original source of the term, and at some more contemporary research, not least because it throws into relief the confusions and limitations of the neoconservative view. The key source here is Bourdieu’s book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, first published in France in 1979, and in English translation in 1984.

It would be foolish to summarise a densely written, 600-page book like this in a short blog post, but Bourdieu’s own maxim actually does it rather well: ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’, he writes. Tastes – or judgments of cultural value – are ways of categorising the range of cultural objects and practices in the world; but in making these judgements, we are also making claims about ourselves in relation to others, and particularly about our place in the social hierarchy. The key point here is that Bourdieu’s analysis of what he calls ‘the cultural game’ is fundamentally sociological. He does not see culture as something that transcends social relations – in contrast to Matthew Arnold, and to contemporary neoconservatives. Indeed, he suggests that this transcendent view is itself something that the dominant classes use to sustain claims about their ‘natural’ social superiority.

In Bourdieu’s theory, cultural capital is one of three main types of capital, alongside economic capital (money) and social capital (friendships, acquaintances, the social circles in which people move). He breaks down cultural capital into several subsidiary kinds: institutionalised, as in formal educational credentials; objectified, the cultural objects that people buy and display; and embodied, for example in things like accent, gestures and bodily mannerisms.

Cultural capital is thus by no means simply a matter of knowledge: despite what neoconservatives assume, it is not just a question of whether you can spot references to Shakespeare, or wax lyrical about 19th-century classical music. It is also a matter of dispositions, orientations, ways of talking, and even physical behaviour – or what Bourdieu calls ‘habitus’ – that are acquired almost invisibly, and often across successive generations.

The key point here is that the relations between these different forms of capital are diverse and complex: they overlap, but they also operate independently of each other. Capital is a form of social power; but cultural capital does not simply translate into economic capital, for example. There is no way that Bourdieu would support simplistic assertions about cultural knowledge as a means of securing ‘social mobility’, of the kind that are apparent among neoconservatives.


In terms of theory, then, Bourdieu’s account of culture is directly opposed in several important respects to that implied by Ofsted. A second major issue here is the empirical basis of the argument.

The research for Distinction was conducted in France in the 1960s. The ‘maps’ on which Bourdieu displays the relationships between the different forms of capital are fascinating and complex; and needless to say, he also adopts a very elaborate, multidimensional account of class structure. Yet by comparison with the UK in 2020, France at this point in the 1960s was much more stable and hierarchical; only half of French households had television sets, and of course there were no digital media. The broad distinctions Bourdieu makes between ‘legitimate’, ‘middle-brow’ and ‘popular’ taste are much less fixed, and much harder to identify, today.

Good empirical evidence for this can be found in a couple of recent British studies which explicitly seek to update Bourdieu: Culture, Class, Distinction (Bennett et al., 2009) and Social Class in the 21st Century by Mike Savage (2015). Again, these are big books, which present large bodies of data, and resist easy summary; but they also point to some fundamental limitations in the neoconservative view of cultural capital.

This research shows that cultural capital today is an increasingly mutable phenomenon. ‘Highbrow’ culture (‘the best that has been thought and said’) no longer enjoys the unchallenged legitimacy that it did in earlier times, and it is increasingly confined to older age groups. While for some this might be a cause for regret, others might well regard it as a reflection of the gradual democratisation of culture (Raymond Williams’ ‘Long Revolution’). Judgments of cultural value are still being made, of course; but there is a growing sense that we need to differentiate within an ever-widening diversity of cultural products, rather than dismissing whole categories out of hand.

Savage makes a useful distinction here between highbrow and ‘emerging’ cultural capital: the latter has a much more valuable currency among younger, middle-class groups, and is therefore likely to become increasingly important over time. This emerging cultural capital is significantly more diverse, cosmopolitan and multicultural. It is self-consciously eclectic and egalitarian, albeit often ‘ironical’; and it is not so much about which cultural objects or practices you prefer as about how you use and talk about them, and the confidence with which you move between them. In the contemporary world, those with the most social power may be the ‘omnivores’ – those who can talk about global art cinema and reality TV, or high-end drama and pop videos, or rap and classical music, and do so in terms that may be drawn from academic theory.

This is not to say that social inequality has disappeared, but rather that it has become much more complex. The cultural capital that has the greatest currency or value no longer takes the form of an agreed set of cultural reference points that ‘educated’ people should share. Rather, it is a matter of dispositions and ways of talking that reflect a kind of self-assurance and ease – things which may in fact be much more difficult to acquire. By contrast, the neoconservatives seem to be referring back to an imagined world of cultural hierarchy and consensus, and offering an easy fantasy of social mobility.

What are the implications of this for schools? Firstly, it would suggest that insisting on a particular canon of approved cultural texts may be much more restricting than it is empowering. For example, as Barbara Bleiman argues, the neoconservatives face genuine difficulties in identifying which books should be compulsory on the English curriculum (at least aside from Shakespeare). Even in elite universities, the selection of literature that is studied is increasingly broad and diverse. The idea – which is apparent in the work of people like E.D. Hirsch – that we need a certain knowledge of the ancient classics (or even the Bible) before we can understand and study a wider range of literature is quite illusory, not least because such knowledge is potentially infinite.

Furthermore, we need to question the idea that this traditional, narrowly-defined form of cultural capital will somehow guarantee social mobility. What disadvantaged children sometimes lack is not so much a matter of ‘knowledge’ as one of confidence and disposition. This is something elite private schools do seem to provide: by separating children from their ‘social inferiors’, they provide them with a sense of their inalienable right to express their opinions, and to have adults marvel at their apparent sophistication. What they do less well is to equip young people to move through a range of social situations, and to find common ground and cultural reference points that can be shared with many different kinds of people.

Even elite universities may increasingly be coming to recognise this. As Bleiman points out, when selecting and interviewing potential students, such universities are no longer so interested in their ability to display ‘highbrow’ cultural knowledge: they are increasingly looking for the kind of flexible, ‘emerging’ cultural capital Savage describes. If ‘success in life’ and social mobility is the aim, schools should surely be producing omnivores, rather than snobs.

In some ways, Media Studies might be regarded as a useful means of cultivating these newer, ‘emerging’ forms of cultural capital. It might help to develop this ability to move confidently and fluently (and perhaps ‘ironically’) across a very broad cultural terrain, without being hidebound by irrelevant or outdated distinctions, for example between high culture and popular culture. This kind of cultural capital is very valuable, not only for those who seek to work in the creative and cultural industries, but potentially in other areas as well.

However, there is a danger here of producing ‘cultural smartarses’ – by which I mean people whose tastes are self-consciously eclectic, and who are fluent in a kind of ironic, postmodern ‘theory-speak’. I do see some of this in myself, and in my colleagues and students. Learning to talk posh about popular culture is not the primary aim of media education. We need to do more than simply create the next generation of hipsters.


My aim here has not been to reject the idea of cultural capital. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we should have a more sophisticated and well-informed debate about it. We need to understand how cultural capital relates to other kinds of capital, how it functions in the modern world, and how its currency may be changing. In this respect, it will be interesting to see how Ofsted actually applies the idea in its inspections of schools, once these resume.