Conflict Theories of Education: Bourdieu on Cultural Capital
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Last updated 26 Nov 2019
Bourdieu argued that the children of middle-class or wealthier parents are likely have cultural assets - knowledge, behaviour, attitudes and cultural experiences - that ensures that they succeed in education (and society).
Capital is usually used to refer to money. According to Marxists, having capital gives the wealthy power. Pierre Bourdieu (a sociologist influenced by Marxist ideas) argued that it is not only money that gives the wealthy power, but cultural assets too. He argued that the children of middle-class or wealthier parents are likely have knowledge, behaviour, attitudes and cultural experiences that ensures that they succeed in education (and society).
This is because sometimes schools assess cultural capital rather than what has been learnt in school and also teachers will perceive cultural capital as intelligence, and this in turn leads to them applying a positive label to the pupils
Bourdieu developed the concept of habitus by which he meant a culture or worldview that is associated with a social class or social group. Our life experiences, as a member of that group, deeply embed in us habits, skills and ways of behaving and thinking. As such, cultural capital is not just knowing the names of classical composers or slipping into a bit of Latin (though both can be useful skills) but can also be demonstrated through much more subtle and deeply-ingrained attributes. Because teachers are often middle class themselves, they have a middle-class habitus and therefore find it easier to relate to pupils who are similar. Aspects of a working-class habitus can be interpreted negatively or unconsciously associated with being less academic or intelligent.
These ideas are further explored by Basil Bernstein (and will be considered in greater depth when considering factors that impact differential achievement by social class). He wrote about the different language codes used by people of different social classes. He argued that teachers, textbooks, exam papers and middle-class pupils share a different language code to working-class pupils. This contributes to schools reproducing inequality. The differences between the elaborate language code and the restricted language code are considered in much more detail in a later section. Essentially, large parts of the education system assess people not on intelligence, merit or effort, but on the extent to which they have a middle-class habitus.
Essential Revision Resources for Education (AQA A-Level Sociology)