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What Is Cultural Capital? - Definition, Examples & Theory

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  • 0:01 What Is Cultural Capital?
  • 1:53 Examples
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Monica Gragg

Monica has taught college-level courses in Tourism, HR and Adult Education. She has a Master's in Education and is three years into a PhD.

In this lesson, we break down the concept of cultural capital to see how it influences an individual's success and social mobility as compared to financial capital. We also look at celebrities as examples of social mobility and take a look at the theory behind this concept.

What Is Cultural Capital?

Did you know that you have cultural capital? We all do. We all have different skills, tastes in music, and life experiences, to name a few. So why is cultural capital important? Our cultural capital gives us power. It helps us achieve goals, become successful, and rise up the social ladder without necessarily having wealth or financial capital.

Cultural capital is having assets that give us social mobility. These assets are both tangible and intangible, as with skills and music taste; but importantly, they are not related to income, net worth, or any financial measure. Cultural capital falls into three categories: institutionalized (education or specialized knowledge), embodied (personality, speech, skills), and objectified (clothes or other belongings). Given these varied elements, cultural capital is difficult to measure objectively.

Financial capital, on the other hand, is measured in numbers, be it in terms of net worth or some other monetary metric. For example, Bill Gates, the Founder of Microsoft, was worth $79.7 billion dollars in May of 2015, topping a list of the world's billionaires. This calculation is based not only on his wealth, but on the monetary value of his other possessions: stocks, retirement accounts, houses, and art. In addition to financial capital, however, Bill Gates also has cultural capital. He has used his wealth, knowledge, and skills such that in 2014, he ranked seventh in a list of the most powerful people in the world. Cultural capital, unlike financial capital, is measured by how much value society places on non-financial assets, and we can use those assets to move up the social ladder. You don't have to be Bill Gates to have cultural capital, however, as income or net worth is not always linked to cultural capital.

Examples

Many NBA stars, both past and present, have used their cultural capital to have successful basketball careers. Caron Butler, Allen Iverson, and DJ Mbenga, for example, all came from homes on the low end of the socio-economic scale and had troubled childhoods. Butler had been arrested fifteen times before he turned fifteen and spent time in a correctional facility before being drafted. Iverson grew up in a single-parent home that often went without water and power, and occasionally leaked sewage. Mbenga grew up in the Congo, one of the poorest nations in the world. He lost most of his family in the civil war, and before fleeing the country, he was once on death row. The cultural capital assets of these men are primarily embodied, having to do with their personal characteristics rather than their belongings or education.

Leaders of social movements have also used their cultural capital for the betterment of society. Nelson Mandela grew up in a small village in South Africa during a time when the country was extremely racially segregated. A college dropout who eventually earned a law degree, his focus on activism put him in prison for 27 years, but also helped desegregate the country. He was elected as South Africa's first Black president shortly after being released from prison and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his lifetime of activism and leadership. Nelson Mandela's cultural capital assets were primarily institutionalized, having to do with his education, as well as embodied, as he led the nation with the strength of his convictions.

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