Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Pierre Bourdieu's The Forms of Capital is published in English

Three years after its original publication in German in 1983, Pierre Bourdieu's influential article 'The Forms of Capital' is published in English.

In this brief but insightful work, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) identified three forms of capital (economic, cultural and social), paying special attention to the mechanisms of accumulation and conversion.

For educational researchers, Bourdieu's contribution provided new insights in order to better understand the role of education (from early family socialization to higher education and professional training) in perpetuating social inequalities, and particularly to analyze the connections between cultural capital and the other forms of capital. Bourdieu's conception of cultural capital also inspired a new wave of research on the impact of the hidden curriculum on the reproduction of inequalities.

In his article, Bourdieu challenged economic theory for narrowly focusing only on economic capital (that capital which is immediately and directly convertible into money and may be institutionalized in the form of property rights). Bourdieu argues that this narrow focus reduces the whole universe of exchanges to mercantile exchange aimed at the self-interested maximization of profit, whereas all other forms of exchange are conceived as noneconomic and therefore disinterested. As an alternative,  Bourdieu proposed the development of a general science of the economy of practices, capable of examining capital (understood as power) in all its forms. Hence, in addition to economic capital, Bourdieu identified cultural and social capital.

Social capital, in Bourdieu's approach, consists of all actual or potential resources linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition (connections to certain individuals and groups). It is a personal asset that provides tangible advantages to those individuals, families or groups that are better connected. Nobility titles constitute an institutionalized form of social capital.

It is pertinent to note that Bourdieu's meaning of social capital is different from the one attributed by authors like Putnam, Coleman and Fukuyama, who understand it as social networks of trust, solidarity and reciprocity, and as a community asset rather than as a personal asset. While the conception of social capital as a community asset has contributed to our understanding of social dynamics, it often tends to assume the existence of a homogeneous community with common interests and shared values, and does not pay enough attention to issues of unequal distribution of power. Bourdieu, instead, was particularly concerned with the role of capital in the reproduction of inequalities.

The third form of capital in Bourdieu's framework is 'cultural capital', which includes three states: embodied in the individual as long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body (a type of habitus), objectified in cultural goods (books, computers, encyclopedias, etc.), and institutionalized as academic credentials and diplomas. For Bourdieu, schools are not so much sites of distribution of cultural capital, but sites of valorization and legitimation of middle and upper class cultural capital, which is reified and rewarded both through the official and the hidden curriculum. In developing the concept of cultural capital, Bourdieu explicitly departed from human capital theory, arguing that such theory fails to recognize the role of the educational system in reproducing the social structure.

It is worth repeating that in Bourdieu's framework, both cultural capital and social capital are convertible to economic capital, and vice-versa. The analysis of the mechanisms and conditions of conversion provides a more sophisticated understanding of how power operates in contemporary societies. In a previous text Bourdieu also made reference to political capital, but later subsumed it under the three main forms of capital.

Bourdieu's approach has been subjected to several criticisms. His analysis of power and domination has been deemed to be mechanistic, overdeterministic and inflexible, in the sense that it does not pay enough attention to human agency, or to the complex dynamics of creation, resistance, incorporation and accommodation. In spite of these limitations, it is beyond doubt that he contributed to a theory of capital that overcame the economic/non-economic dichotomy, and helped to better elucidate the connections between culture, social networks and power.

For more information: 


Bourdieu, Pierre (1986). The Forms of Capital. In John Richardson, Ed. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press, pp. 241-258.


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