Cultural Capital is a very general theory, in the sense that it attempts to construct explanations for things like differential educational achievement in a way that combines a wide range of differing influences. In this respect, almost any cultural feature of people's lives can, under the right circumstances, be applied to an explanation of achievement / underachievement.
This, in some respects, is both a strength and a weakness of the theory. A strength in terms of the way the theory recognises that a multi-causal approach to understanding the complexity of achievement is required and a weakness in terms of the fact that it's frequently difficult to pin-down the relative influence of particular cultural factors.
When sifting through the evidence, therefore, we are faced with a whole range of studies that can be classified, for our theoretical convenience if nothing else, into three main categories:
Firstly, the general nature of the theory makes it possible to include studies that, while not explicitly talking about the influence of cultural capital, implicitly support the "culture-based" approach to understanding achievement.
Evidence in this section comes, therefore, from a wide diversity of sources. For example:
Secondly, we can note the general contribution made by writers such as Bourdieu to the theoretical development of the concept. We could, therefore, note a number of general points in this particular context
For example, we can note that the theory brings into focus the question of cultural values as they relate to things like:
What constitutes "knowledge".
How knowledge is to be achieved.
How knowledge is validated and so forth.
In this respect, writers such as Bourdieu make such questions problematic (that is, open to question) and take as their starting-point the idea that questions of power and ideology are central to the differential achievement debate. In particular, we could think about the way powerful groups in our society are able to define these questions and, by so doing, provide their offspring with cultural advantages.
More specifically, Bourdieu argues that, since there is no objective way of differentiating between different class cultures (upper, middle and working class cultures for example), the high value placed on the dominant cultural values characteristic of an upper or ruling class is simply a reflection of their powerful position within Capitalist society. A dominant class is able, in effect, to impose its definition of reality upon all other classes.
Thus, each economic class develops an associated "class culture" involving ways of seeing the social world, ways of doing things within that world, etc. These things are specific to, and develop out of, each class' experiences in the social world.
Children, are not simply socialised into the "values of society as a whole". Rather, they are socialised into the culture that corresponds to their class and, in Bourdieu's terms, this set of cultural experiences, values beliefs and so forth represents a form of "Cultural Capital". That is, a set of values, beliefs, norms, attitudes, experiences and so forth that equip people for their life in society.
The term cultural capital is used because, like money, our cultural inheritance can be translated into social resources (things like wealth, power and status) and the cultural capital we accumulate from birth can be "spent" in the education system as we try to achieve things that are considered to be culturally important (mainly educational qualifications for the majority of children - but status can also be considered here when we think about the way the rich can educate their children privately at high status schools such as Eton and so forth).
Not all classes start with the same kind or level of cultural capital of course. Children socialised into the dominant culture will have a big advantage over children not socialised into this culture because schools attempt to reproduce a general set of dominant cultural values and ideas.
We can imagine this idea in terms of the education system being a shop where we spend our cultural capital on qualifications:
The Upper class child has a large amount of currency that is recognised by the shopkeeper as valid coinage - they can accordingly buy many things.
The working class child has a devalued currency (in the eyes of the shopkeeper). They can buy things, but not as much or of as high a quality.
Perhaps a better analogy might be if you think about culture in terms of language.
Imagine three people (one French, one German and one English) going into a shop in France (the "dominant culture", in this respect, would be French).
The French person can speak the language.
The German knows some French (enough to get by).
The English person knows no French.
Each of the above has a stock of cultural capital (in this analogy, their knowledge of languages) which they then proceed to spend by trying to buy things:
The French person does this quickly and efficiently - the shopkeeper (i.e. teachers in an educational system) understands this person perfectly.
The German takes longer to express him / herself and may not be able to buy everything they want. The shopkeeper has a problem understanding but with a bit of time and patience business is transacted amicably.
The English person - after much shouting, pointing and general gesticulation - succeeds in buying some basic things (or leaves the shop without being able to buy anything because the shopkeeper could not understand). For the shopkeeper, this customer is difficult to serve because they do not "speak the same language". It's not impossible for the shopkeeper to understand, but it takes a great deal of time, effort, co-operation and patience for this to happen.
In class terms, therefore:
The French person is equivalent to the Upper class child.
The German person is equivalent to the Middle class child.
The English person is equivalent to the Working class child.
In cultural terms, each of the above can speak a language, but some are more successful than others in making themselves understood. In educational terms, the ability to "speak the language" of the educational system, teachers and so forth produces big advantages.
Thus, children who have been socialised into dominant cultural values appear to the teacher to be "more gifted" - just as to a French shopkeeper the French person would appear to be "more gifted" or fluent than the English woman. In this sense, therefore, the education system itself may appear to be "neutral" or "meritocratic".
Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, just everyone has an equal opportunity to buy something. However, it is only meritocratic in relation to a pupil's ability to fit-in with the dominant cultural values perpetuated through the school system.
In this respect, Bourdieu argues one of the major roles played by the school is social elimination and this involves the need to progressively remove pupils from access to higher knowledge and social rewards (Bourdieu calls this differentiation - the need to "make pupils different" in ways that are recognised as valid by a dominant culture).
Elimination itself is achieved in two main ways:
Firstly through an examination system designed to progressively fail or exclude pupils. Working class pupils are far more likely to fail in examinations because their cultural capital is seen to be less valid.
Secondly, through self-elimination. Working class children quickly come to understand that they don't speak the same language as the educational system. It seems to offer them very little that is culturally useful and they "vote with their feet" by leaving the educational system as early as possible. Such children learn that their chances of educational success (as measured in terms of qualifications) are small and they "realistically" assess the possible future avenues open to them (which normally means work rather than higher education).
Although Cultural Capital has a number of clear strengths (one of which is undoubtedly the insistence that questions of knowledge are themselves highly problematic and can't simply be be taken-for-granted in the way that biological / genetic theories tend to do) we can note two problems here in relation to education in our society:
Bourdieu's argument is that the role of education is mainly one of social reproduction that serves the ideological purpose of enabling a dominant social class to reproduce its power, wealth and privilege legitimately. If everyone has an "equal opportunity" to succeed, then failure must be a consequence of individual failing, rather than a fault of the way in which the system is structured to favour one class over another.
Again, this argument has some validity, but it also overstates the situation in modern societies where increasing numbers of highly skilled workers may be needed to cope with, for example, computerisation. Additionally, the deskilling of many occupations should result in less need for some sections of the workforce to be educated. The education system does not seem to be responding in the way it should if Bourdieus argument in valid.
Thirdly, there have been a number of attempts to apply the concept of cultural capital explicitly (and empirically) to an understanding of differential educational achievement.
Diane Reay, for example, has noted the significance of family life / background as a "primary site of social reproduction". She argues that, in class terms, there's little evidence to suggest that different social classes view the importance of education differently. On the contrary, she argues, educational success tends to be seen by all classes as one of the keys to social mobility and success.
Reay uses the concept of "emotional labour" to describe what she sees as the crucial role played by mothers in the educational life chances of their children. Reay argues that middle class mothers, for example, are "better-placed" (that is, they have greater reserves of cultural capital) than their working class peers to provide the support required by children throughout their school career.
This "emotional investment" works on a number of levels, from being better-placed to provide their children with "compensatory education" (help with school work, for example), having more time to spend on their children's education (middle class women, for example, are less-likely to spend large parts of their working day in paid employment) to having the status (and confidence) to confront teachers when they feel their children are not being pushed hard enough or taught well enough (Reay notes that middle class parents, for example, are better-placed to exert pressure on schools to dismiss / discipline teachers who do not, in the view of such parents, come up with the educational goods for their children).