Pierre Bourdieu’s Capital Explained

A critical contribution to P. Bourdieu’s notion of “capital”

Bourdieu’s development of the notion of “capital” has been proven a rich vein for the field of sociology and cultural theory. Capital has served as an important empirical and theoretical tool for the exploration of processes of embodiment and accumulation of knowledge and reproduction by agents within the social field. In his seminal work The Forms of Capital (1986), P. Bourdieu, by arguing that the social world is accumulated history, calls for the introduction of the notion of capital so as to highlight the importance of accumulation in the social field. He defines capital as “accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor” (p.15). Simply put, capital can be understood as a form of fuel which enables agents to reproduce their position within the social field and represents the immanent structure of the social world. Depending on the field where it functions, capital can manifest itself in three radical forms: economic, cultural, and social capital.

Building upon Marxian accounts, Bourdieu perceives the economic capital as purely individual material assets which can be directly and easily convertible into money or maybe institutionalized in the forms of property rights (ibid). Economic capital includes every form of material resources such as financial resources and land or property ownership. It consists of capital in Marxian terms, but it also engulfs other economic possessions that increase an agent’s capacities in society. However, Bourdieu does not define explicitly the notion of economic capital since he borrows this idea from the field of economics. He seems to merely offer a materialist interpretation of the notion; yet, this fact does not lead to a reductionist approach. He understands economic capital as a resource of paramount importance which, on one hand, distinct the agents who play the social game and, on the other hand, is unfairly distributed by being characterized by the law of transmission. Thus, economic capital manifests itself as the root of all other forms of capital which can be understood as disguised forms of economic capital.

Cultural capital can be explained as a form of capital that is “convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and maybe institutionalized in the form of educational qualifications” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 242). Bourdieu and Passeron developed the concept of cultural capital in order to examine the impact of culture on the social stratification system and “the relationship between action and social structure” (Lamont & Lareau, 1988, p. 154). By doing so, Bourdieu distinguishes between three fundamental forms of cultural capital: the embodied, the institutionalized, and the objectified cultural capital. In its embodied state, cultural capital is a “form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and the body” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 243). In other words, it can be understood as the legitimate cultural preferences and behaviors which are internalized mostly during the process of socialization. In turn, the institutionalized cultural capital can be associated with “the degrees and diplomas which certify the value of the embodied cultural capital” (Lamont & Lareau, 1988, p. 156). Last but not least, in its objectified state, cultural capital represents the consumption and acquisition of several cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, etc.).

The transmission of cultural capital, in its embodied expression, plays an important role in terms of the formation of the habitus. Despite the fact that L. Gillespie offers a well-rounded description of habitus stating that it “instills a world-view in its subjects by conferring (cultural) value upon things, be they material or immaterial”[2], we shall offer some new insights upon this notion so that the connection between capital and habitus be highlighted. Bourdieu developed the notion of habitus as a response to the epistemological binary distinction between objectivism – which manifests itself as a structuralist approach reduced into a mechanical determinism – and subjectivism – which has been mainly utilized in rational action theory. He uses the notion of habitus so as to characterize a socialized subjectivity that internalizes something external and externalizes in an objectified state the internality. Simply put, habitus can be perceived as the embodiment of our social location, gender, class, ethnicity, and race. It consists of the dispositions that internalize this social location, which most of the time is determined by class and dictates our actions. According to Bourdieu, all forms of capital are determined by class and social location. Thus, cultural capital in its embodied state tends to convert external wealth into an integral part of an agent, into a habitus, which is the embodiment of the cultural capital per se.

Bourdieu’s concept of social capital turns the analytical epistemological spotlight on conflicts and power relations which can be exposed by a closer look at social relations. Social capital can be perceived as a collection of resources that equals a network of relationships and mutual recognition. Bourdieu perfectly calls it “membership to a group”. More specifically, for Bourdieu, social capital can be accumulated and deployed both collectively, for example by a family, and individually. It is mainly instrumentalized for tangible or symbolic gains. Hence, by being a member of an influential group of agents or having a strong network of connections, one can monetize this situation for his/her own benefit. Thus, as a theoretical artifact, social capital engulfs the notion of social relations which increases the ability of an actor to advance her/his interests.

The symbolic capital is another form of capital closely linked to social capital. Bourdieu does not perceive symbolic capital as a fundamental guise, but rather as a subform that tends to legitimize actors’ social positions, as well as the separation of economic, cultural, and social resources. The symbolic capital is a denotation of power of the dominant class and it is instrumentalized for the legitimization of this power. Siisiäinen (2000) perfectly portrays the legitimizing role of symbolic capital by using an interesting example. He argues that social classes implicated by the distribution of economic, cultural, and social capital are only “classes on paper”, that is, only potentialities unless they are transformed into meaningful differences, mediated by symbolic capital.

All forms of capital are convertible and transmissible. Converted into other forms and transmitted between individuals, capital in the Bourdieusian sense is of paramount importance for the power relations that exist within the social field. Bourdieu and Passeron, in both the Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture and the Reproduction in education, society and culture, proved that capital is transmitted most of the time between powerful families. As such, capital is used as a mechanism of social reproduction, primarily within and through the family. The most easily convertible and transmissible form of capital is the economic one, which can be inherited directly or converted to other forms of capital. For example, economic capital can be converted to the objectified state of cultural state via an acquisition of a painting.

Cultural capital’s transmission from parents to children is of the essence since it is not only a basis and indicator of class position, but it can also determine in a great many ways the trajectory of children within the social field. The cultural capital theory argues that the effect of families’ social origin on children’s educational success is highly associated with the cultural resources of privileged parents who give their children an advantage in order to master the educational curriculum. However, it must be noted that the transmission of cultural capital takes place over a relatively long period through the process of socialization.

In view of the above, by measuring the volume and the composition of all forms of capital through detailed studies, Bourdieu succeeded to ground his theoretical contribution to real-life situations. Bourdieu is not merely highlighting the convertibility and transmission of capital or the factual distribution of different forms of resources and capital within society. Instead, by introducing the notion of capital, he wishes to reveal and highlight the underlying processes through which the bourgeois, the dominant class, eternally appropriate and monopolize all the resources that guarantee the legitimation of their social “supremacy”. These resources, converted into different forms of capital, are unequally distributed and instrumentalized by the dominants for their exclusive benefit, namely the reproduction of their position of dominance against subordinate classes within the social field.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of Capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociolgy of Education (pp. 241-258). Westport: Greenwood.

Lamont, M., & Lareau, A. (1988). Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments. Sociological Theory, 6(2), 153-168.

Siisiäinen, Martti. (2003). Two concepts of social capital: Bourdieu vs. Putnam. International Journal of Contemporary Sociology. 40. 183-204.

[2] https://criticallegalthinking.com/2019/08/06/pierre-bourdieu-habitus/

Share on:

George Paschos is a Research Master Student of Sociology of Culture, Media and the Arts, Erasmus University Rotterdam