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What is cultural capital?

For the first time the new Ofsted framework requires schools to develop their pupils’ cultural capital. In this blog post we provide a quick summary of some of the history, academic thinking and definitions of this key term.

Where did the term cultural capital come from?

In the 1970s Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, developed the idea of cultural capital as a way to explain how power in society was transferred and social classes maintained. Karl Marx believed economic capital (money and assets) dictated your position in a social order. Bourdieu believed that cultural capital played an important, and subtle role. For both Marx and Bourdieu the more capital you have the more powerful you are.

Bourdieu defined cultural capital as ‘familiarity with the legitimate culture within a society’; what we might call ‘high culture’. He saw families passing on cultural capital to their children by introducing them to dance and music, taking them to theatres, galleries and historic sites, and by talking about literature and art over the dinner table.

Since its publication in English in 1984 Bourdieu’s book, Distinction, has had a significant and lasting impact on academic discourse about class in the UK.

Defining cultural capital today

  1. Bourdieu identified three sources of cultural capital: objective, embodied and institutionalised.

Objective: cultural goods, books, works of art

Embodied: language, mannerisms, preferences

Institutionalised: qualifications, education credentials

  1. More recent work on the idea of cultural capital by a range of academics has added technical, emotional, national and subcultural forms of cultural capital to this list.

Technical: marketable skills, e.g. IT

Emotional: empathy, sympathy (things businesses might look for in employees in management positions)

National: ‘operates on the assumption of the existence of traditions, in both high and popular culture, which generate and justify a sense of belonging and an occupancy of a governing national position … It is a form with limited exchange value because it is not rare … in operation, to lack it acts as a handicap, rather more than its possession supplying a route to profit and preferment.’ Bennett et al (2009) p258

Subcultural: Groups built around cultural specifics, where individuals need particular cultural knowledge and behaviours to belong to the sub-set.

Cultural consumption and notions of ‘high art’ have changed over time. Today’s prominent academic researchers have coined the term ‘cultural omnivore’ (Peterson 1992, Peterson & Kern 1996): someone who mixes interests in a wide range of forms of culture, both those seen as historically ‘legitimate’ by society, and emerging forms – such as Grime music.

‘Cultural capital’ in this new sense is embodied by an individual who is knowledgeable about a wide range of culture and is comfortable discussing its value and merits. It is characterised by the experience and skill to be able to deploy the appropriate knowledge in any given situation: a job interview, a conversation with a neighbour, building a work network and so on.

The benefits of cultural capital

Evidence suggests that the cultural capital passed on through families helps children do better in school. The education system values the knowledge and ways of thinking developed by acquiring cultural capital, both abstract and formal. As adults, cultural capital helps individuals to network with other adults who have a similar body of knowledge and experiences, and who in turn control access to high-paying professions and prestigious leadership roles, for example in government.

In their 2009 book Culture, Class, Distinction Bennet et al, describe this system of privilege:

‘This is the reproduction circuit associated with schooling and formal education. Those parents equipped with cultural capital are able to drill their children in the cultural forms that predispose them to perform well in the educational system through their ability to handle “abstract” and “formal” categories. These children are able to turn their cultural capital into credentials, which can then be used to acquire advantaged positions themselves.’

The book describes the ways that cultural capital can be turned into educational and economic success.

Evidence of the power of cultural capital

Studies by organisations such as the Sutton Trust have probed this issue of how types of education and family background confer advantages on some children. The report Parent Power shows how wealthy parents buy in extra schooling (including in arts subjects) to push their children ahead of their peers in exams and to secure entry to more prestigious schools and universities. Projects such as The Class Ceiling have shown how recruitment into top professions, including banking and law, is made easier by the level of cultural capital of the applicants.

A range of other reports back up these findings, including publications by the Social Mobility Commission and books such as Social Mobility and its Enemies by Lee Elliott Major.

The paradox of cultural capital and schools

The new Ofsted framework requires schools to consider how they develop their children’s cultural capital to help them succeed in life:

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.’

Ofsted School Inspection Handbook 2019

At the CLA we assume that Ofsted has introduced this new duty because it believes that it will level the playing field; ensuring that background plays less of a role in determining social mobility and educational success.

However, there is a risk that the new Ofsted requirement will drive entrenchment of one type of culture. As it is stated above, the Ofsted definition is intrinsically linked to teaching children ‘the best that has been thought and said.’ This phrasing is a direct quote from an 1869 essay by Matthew Arnold Culture and Anarchy:

‘The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.’

Culture and Anarchy page 7

This definition is troubling when taken in a modern context for a number of reasons: it is passive; it does not adequately cover all cultural forms or expressions (particularly music, dance or visual arts); and it has the potential to be used to entrench notions of class structure.

Instead, the CLA believes that we should enable our children to stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before and create new and exciting forms of culture; things which may well help them fuel solutions to society’s problems, build our creative industries and help UK plc to survive the turmoil of Brexit. We want definitions of cultural capital to celebrate and embrace the different backgrounds, heritage, language and traditions of all the children living in this country.

If the definition of cultural capital remains narrow then we risk a paradox: some children will gain the keys to advancement and this will help to maintain the status quo.

‘This leaves us in the paradoxical position that cultural education can simultaneously be a route to personal advancement, while entrenching class division at the level of society. This contention is clearly evidenced by the fact that the poorest state schools lack arts provision, while private schools invest heavily in the arts.’

John Holden, Visiting Professor University of Leeds, Cultural Fellow, King’s College, London

The CLA believes strongly that this new Ofsted requirement constitutes an opportunity for schools to define the cultural capital that their children need and to think more widely than existing ‘legitimate culture’. This will ensure that their pupils are confident creators, able to be the ‘cultural omnivores’ that can make informed decisions about what culture they consume and participate in, and can articulate why it has value.

Sam Cairns, Co-Director, Cultural Learning Alliance


Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction, Routledge

Peterson, Richard (1992) ‘Understanding audience segmentation: from elite and mass to omnivore and univore’, Poetics, 21:243-258

Peterson, R. A. and R. M. Kern (1996) ‘Changing highbrow taste: from snob to omnivore’, American Sociological Review, 61:900-907


Bennett, Tony et al (2009) Culture, Class, Distinction, Routledge

Holden, John (2010) Culture and Class, Counterpoint

Thornton, Sarah (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Polity

Image credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries