Cultural Capital & U.S. Education Research Paper Starter

Cultural Capital & U.S. Education

(Research Starters)

Cultural capital refers to the knowledge or skills a group of people possesses that can be attributed to what they learn from their family, culture, and those around them rather than through formal education. Middle-class, white cultural capital dominates and serves as a normative role throughout all levels of U.S. society, including education. Those who possess these values tend to be more successful than those who do not. Thus, cultural capital plays in all levels of education, including elementary school, high school, and higher education. Furthermore, the cultural capital of different racial and ethnic groups may affect their success in an academic environment. Lastly, masculinity, and the cultural capital placed on it, may impose conflicting views on students.

Keywords Assimilation; Cultural Capital; Dual Socializations; Habitus; Legitimate; Outcast; Privilege; Selective Flight; Social Status; White Flight

Politics, Government,


Education is typically thought of as a school or classroom setting with an instructor teaching a lesson to a group of students. Yet learning in non-formal, less institutionalized terms begins at home, where children acquire the social practices of their parents, family members, and those who surround them. While parents may teach their children to count or say the alphabet in order to prepare them for school, parents also teach them manners, customs, and appropriate behaviors. It is in this way that children begin to develop their mores, personalities, and characteristics. Loosely defined, cultural capital refers to this intangible knowledge that we learn from the people who surround us. Most often this knowledge includes how one's family or culture views school and formal educational institutions. Silva (2006) defines cultural capital as "an appropriate form of investment that can secure a return, in the form of an accumulating asset bearing on social position" (p. 1173).

Historical Perspectives

Cultural Capital Theory (CCT), first articulated by Pierre Bourdieu and his associate Jean-Claude Passeron in France in the 1960s, looks at the relationship between one's cultural resources and his or her learning outcomes (Barone, 2006, p. 1041). The term "habitus" is sometimes used in conjunction with the term cultural capital as a way of very specifically defining individual cultural behaviors or developments. In the 1930s, Norbert Elias used habitus in a social context to discuss daily practices of individuals, groups, and societies as well as the totality and lasting impact of these learned habits. In other words, these habits become so deeply ingrained or associated with a certain group that they become second nature (the English translation of the term, habitus) (King, 2005, p. 223). CCT argues that in contemporary societies, each social class strives to maintain a certain rooted cultural identity. Such an identity maintains its resiliency over time and strongly influences how people perceive "the educational system, the labor market, leisure time, and the political arena" (Barone, 2006, p. 1041). For instance, how a young person's culture or social class feels about education, whether it is highly or minimally valued, strongly affects that person's attitude toward learning and their performance in a school setting. In this way, Barone (2006) states that,

Cultural capital is considered the main determinant of a school's success. Students' performance is not evaluated according to (class) neutral standards. On the contrary, pedagogical practices and assessment procedures are related, to a significant extent, to the culture of the upper class (p. 1041).

CCT argues that these entrenched cultural habits, rather than monetary resources, can largely explain why the affluent continue to attend prestigious schools and obtain high-paying jobs while the working class continue to attain minimal education levels and earn low-wage jobs. However, many academics and sociologists argue against this theory, pointing out that cultural identities are in a state of continuous flux rather than in a state of stagnation. Moreover, they argue that human capital or economic means more heavily influences cultural capital and education achievement (Barone, 2006, p. 1042).

What Cultural Capital Can Buy

Different stratagems of society value different activities, possessions, abilities, or lifestyles. Silva (2006) writes that, according to Bourdieu, it is the rich who decide which cultural values are legitimate and which ones are common. Art, theater, opera, and cuisine are cultivated by the affluent; the mainstream bourgeoisie mimic the rich and invest their resources in developing high tastes, luxury goods, and a pretentious attitude. The poor, according to Bourdieu, make little distinction between life's necessities and cultural desires interweaving the two areas (cited in Silva, 2006, p. 1174). Whether it is due to economic necessities or cultural values, the poor or working class are less likely than the others to invest in education. Working class individuals who do strike out on their own to obtain an education with the goal of bettering their situation in life often express feelings of loneliness or of not fitting in with their college-going peers. Moreover, some admit to feeling shunned or spurned by those in their local community and even by family members who see their actions as a putdown (p. 1181). Though many sociologists recognize the validity of some of Bourdieu's observations, they argue that some of his arguments and conclusions are too simple. Not only are class structures more porous than his theories contend, but also individualism and other factors influence cultural tastes, educational pursuits, and occupational goals (p. 1183).


Since the history books are written by the predominantly white, rich, and powerful class, they have had the privilege of deciding which type of capital culture has value. By ignoring or disregarding the cultural capital of minorities, the power-holders have been able to discount the cultural capital of others. In the school setting, for instance, minority children are taught to embrace the cultural capital of white, mainstream society. In this way, children learn to hold the mainstream culture in higher esteem than their own, which is viewed as somehow inferior (Yosso, 2005, p. 76). Students of color who lack knowledge of mainstream, white cultural capital are viewed as socially deficient though this same attitude is not applied to mainstream whites who are unfamiliar with the cultural capital of different minority groups. Minority students are pitied or looked down on for lacking this knowledge and it is assumed they must embrace white cultural capital if they are to be successful in educational endeavors. Yosso (2005) argues, "In education, Bourdieu's work has often been called upon to explain why Students of Color do not succeed at the same rate as Whites. According to Bourdieu, cultural capital refers to an accumulation of cultural knowledge, skills and abilities possessed and inherited by privileged groups in society" (p. 77). Of course, students of color do bring their own set of skills and knowledge to school and society at large but because white, middle-class society does not value these skill sets, they dismiss them, often taking the position that such populations simply lack knowledge.

Further Insights

Examples from Elementary School

Even among the youngest of students, the importance of cultural capital can be seen in the classroom. Minority, low-income students are at a disadvantage in the classroom even at this level. Parents who are uneducated tend to be less involved in their children's schools, often lacking the knowledge or cultural capital that tells educated parents to get more involved. Uneducated parents often focus less on their children's homework, extracurricular activities, parent-teacher conferences, and other activities, because they do not recognize their importance (Jung-Sook & Bowen, 2006, p. 194). In addition, minority parents tend not to associate with other parents at their children's school, so there are fewer networking and out-of-school socialization opportunities. Uneducated parents may feel that since they did not take school seriously they are not entitled to push their children in school. In this...

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